Paul's Blog

Native Language Guide Series: Chinese

This Native Language Guide will help you get right to the most difficult sounds, words and other parts of speech for native speakers of a particular language. In this first section, we will focus on native Chinese speakers and what is most difficult about English for them in terms of syllable stress, word stress, and intonation.

One of the most difficult sounds for native Chinese speakers is the /n/ sound.

According to the text in Mastering The American Accent, "Chinese speakers tend to completely drop off the /n/ sound or pronounce it incorrectly when it is as the end of the word."

1. Word stress

  • In Chinese languages most words are made up of two syllables distinguished by tone (a change in pitch) rather than stress as they would be in English. Chinese speakers might therefore have difficulty hearing or making a distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Use the word stress activity to practise this with medical words. 

2. Sentence stress

  • English speakers use sentence stress to highlight important words in a sentence. Chinese speakers sometimes try to pronounce each and every word fully and correctly, which makes speech that is difficult for the listener to decode, i.e., to work out the speaker’s intended meaning.
  • Use the contrastive stress and more contrastive stress activities to practise sentence stress.

3. Intonation

  • Changes in pitch (tones) are used in Chinese languages to distinguish words whose pronunciation is otherwise the same; intonation is used less across a whole sentence than it is in English. This can make it difficult for Chinese speakers to learn both to understand and to use intonation patterns effectively in English.
  • Use the intonation and question intonation activities to practise English intonation patterns.

4. Linking

  • Because the structure of Chinese words is very different to English, Chinese learners of English tend to separate English words in a sentence rather than joining them smoothly into a ‘stream of speech’, which produces a ‘staccato’ or ‘choppy’ sound.
  • Use the linking activity to practise linking.

(Direct Content Source: Doctors Speak Up)

Laura Brewer from Confidence Learning Services, came up with a list of words that Chinese speakers have a difficult time pronouncing, and her explanations directly explain many of the issues native Chinese speakers have with various English sounds. She says:


"Most Chinese speakers struggle to get the correct position (top teeth touching bottom lip) and maintaining friction and voicing long enough to make a true /v/ sound, which makes “very” sound like “wary.” But the words have two very different meanings."


"Word-final nasal sounds (like /n/ and /ŋ/) are much shorter in Chinese than in English. As a result, English-speakers may not be able to identify which sound is being produced, if any at all, at the end of the word."


"Chinese-speakers tend to replace the relaxed “i” /I/ with a tense “e” /i/, making it “sheep”. Chinese-speakers often make vowel sounds tense, or “long,” and confuse pairs of “short” and “long” English vowel sounds like “ship” and “sheep” both in comprehension and speaking."


"Perhaps because this word features several difficult sounds – the “L” /l/ sound, which is sometimes pronounced by Chinese-speakers to sound more like an “R,” the voiced fricative /ʒ/ sound represented by the “s” in this word, and the various vowel sounds in the word."


"In English, our letters “th” represent a sound made with the tongue between the teeth. However, this sound is very difficult for Chinese-speakers to pronounce, so it is often replaced with an “s” sound. But if you say “I sink” instead of “I think” your listeners will definitely have a different picture in their minds!"


"This is a common mispronunciation for many Chinese-speakers learning English.That’s because r-vowels (ar, er, ir, or, ur) are typically pronounced without the strong “r” sound that Americans use. This pronunciation can be even more difficult for Chinese-speakers who have studied British pronunciation, in which these sounds are not produced."

Check out her other great posts here.

Here are some ways you can work on getting these sounds right:

The American /n/ sound is always at created in the front of the mouth, with the tip of your tongue pressed against the gum line behind the upper teeth. To produce the correct sound, make sure you have your tongue properly placed and you continue to produce sound by allowing air to come out through your nose.

Practice Words:

One     Attention     Nine     Content     Consonant     Man     Pronounce     Mention

Practice Sentences:

It was brought to our attention in nineteen ninety nine.

The man can only mention one name.

The man's name has nineteen consonants.

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