Teaching English to Chinese Speakers: 9 Major Differences to Be Aware Of
Quick, name a mythical creature!
All right, what was your answer?
Unicorn? Dragon? Mermaid?
Someone from China might have also answered “qilin,” the hooved creature pictured above, which is a good omen.
Mythical creatures are obviously not the only differences you’ll encounter when working with Chinese students. Differences that will affect students’ readiness to learn English involve both linguistic and cultural aspects—which is why your teaching won’t be the same as if you were teaching a class of French speakers, for example.
So whether you have a mix of Chinese ELL students in a mainstream class or an entire class of Chinese students, a little understanding of China and its people will be incredibly helpful, as will ways to deal with these differences in the classroom context.
Consider yourself lucky, because that’s exactly what I’ve put together for you here: the main linguistic and cultural differences to be aware of, plus techniques and activities made specifically with Chinese students in mind.
(You’re also lucky just to be teaching Chinese students, because—in my experience—the little kids are so incredibly cute, the teenagers are desperate to do their best, and adult students are friendly and respectful!)
9 Linguistic and Cultural Differences to Know When Teaching English to Chinese Students
We’ll first look at four main differences between the English and Chinese languages (speaking rhythm, word stress, pronunciation and grammar), followed by a section of five cultural aspects to be aware of.
Linguistic Differences Between English and Chinese
1. Speaking rhythm
Have you ever noticed how English speakers “gabble” and don’t say each syllable and word with the same degree of clarity? In fact, when we’re just chatting, there are some words which we almost skip right over, with just a hint of a residual consonant.
In any sentence, the important words or syllables are stressed and spoken at an even, rhythmic pace, almost like the beat you can feel in music. The other (less important) syllables and words just get squashed in between. Here’s a simple example:
Dogs chase cats.
Each word is important, so each word is stressed.
Now, let’s add some less important unstressed syllables into the mix:
The dogs will be chasing the cats.
These sentences essentially take the same time to say because the stressed syllables still dictate the timing of the sentence. The unimportant, unstressed syllables are tucked in between, and are often reduced—such as “will” reduced to apostrophe “ll.”
In Chinese, however, every syllable has the same value and takes the same amount of time.
Teaching techniques for speaking rhythm
You may have heard of jazz chants or grammar chants, usually said to have been invented by Carolyn Graham. Even though it might seem counter productive because we don’t strictly talk like that all the time, there are benefits to using these in class.
Firstly, they’re a lot of fun, and secondly, they emphasize the stress-timed nature of the English language. You can find and use the chants from the websites above, watch videos about Carolyn Graham on YouTube, buy the books, or simply create your own around the sentences that you’re currently practicing.
Create 4-beat sequences, and use clapping/clicking/movement or music to keep the beat as you say them. If there are only three beats in your sentence, you can either have an empty beat on “4” or start the next sentence.
So, for the two sentences above, we could have:
1 2 3 4
Dogs chase cats (and*)
Cats chase dogs (The*)
dogs will be chasing the cats, and (the*)
cats will be chasing the dogs. ( )
*Note: The extra unstressed words at the end of the line (i.e. and, the) are spoken quickly on the “upbeat” just before the start of the next line.
Lots of rhythmic speaking practice will give your students a chance to be totally engaged and having fun, and the rhythmic aspect of the language will help them to remember it better, quickly internalizing the grammar.
2. Syllables and word stress
The Chinese language is monosyllabic, meaning that basically each one of their characters is one syllable. Each syllable receives the same amount of attention (same stress, same time allocation) and each has its own tonal shape, giving the language that delightful sing-song sound.
One result of this is that Chinese ESL students tend to pronounce each English syllable too carefully, messing up the word-stress pattern, causing discomfort to English-speaking listeners and sometimes causing confusion by changing the meaning. For example:
- DEsert is a place where there is very little water.
- deSERT is the action of abandoning someone or a place.
In English, each word is made up of one or more syllables, and each syllable can consist of a vowel (V) or consonant and vowel (CV) or a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) sequence.
An important difference with Chinese syllables is that if they end in a consonant, it can only be an /n/ or /ng/. This affects Chinese students’ pronunciation of English because they’re uncomfortable with syllables that end in other consonants. As a result, you’ll often hear students adding a vowel —usually a schwa—after the consonant. For example:
“Get up!” might be pronounced “Get-a up-a!”
Teaching techniques for word stress
Firstly, teach your students the word stress rules. (In my experiences, students actually like to learn these rules.)
Then use games to practice correct word stress and stress patterns until it becomes second nature. For example:
- Bingo — Use a Bingo card creator to make cards with 25 multiple-syllable words to practice. (Create a card for each student, each card contains the same words in a different configuration.) As students hear the words on their card, they mark the square with small objects such as counters or sunflower seeds. As soon as someone has five markers in a row in any direction, they call “Bingo” and win the round. You can play the game several times over and/or have multiple winners per round (i.e. Keep playing for second place, third place, etc.) Winners can also take turns being the caller—with you monitoring correct pronunciation.
- Scavenger Hunt — Each student will need a paper dictionary (English-English). Call out multi-syllable words and have students race to find them in their dictionaries. (This is good practice for using alphabetical listings, another point where Chinese is very different from English.) Once a word is found, students can check the pronunciation and possibly look at and discuss related words—which may have a different word-stress pattern (i.e. pho-to-graph vs. pho-to-graph-y). Students can work in teams to select words to call for others to race to find.
Note: Both of these games can be played with a class including ELL students, and also with a whole class of Chinese students.
- /l/ and /r/
It’s well known that Asian students have difficulties trying to pronounce these two sounds, but often teachers don’t realize that they really cannot hear the difference.
The first step is to make sure students clearly understand the physical difference in pronunciation. Demonstrate and practice putting the tip of the tongue against the top of the mouth for /l/, and moving it away for /r/. (This can be done with the whole class if you’re teaching in China, or you can take individual students aside for ELL students in a regular class.)
The second step is to have some fun with pronunciation practice games (shown below, after #5) which can include the whole class.
- /v/ and /w/
Chinese students also have difficulties with the difference between /v/ and /w/. Demonstrate and practice touching the top teeth to the bottom lip for /v/, and rounding the lips for /w/. Give students mirrors to practice with, and/or practice with a partner. (Again, in a regular class it may be worthwhile to give some private time to ELL students.)
Many ESL students, including Chinese, have difficulties with the /th/ sound because there is no such sound in their language. Help students make sure that their tongue sticks out between their teeth while they make the sound. They can use a mirror or a partner, and/or put their fingers in front of their mouth to make sure that their tongue is far enough forward.
Play pronunciation games (below) to practice and improve awareness and confidence with these two issues.
- Consonant clusters /tr/ /dr/ /st/ /pl/
Chinese students often find it hard to blend consonants together, because there is nothing like that in their first language. Add to that the fact that most of the blends include their nemesis—an /r/ or an /l/—and you can see how daunting this must be.
Students often need concentrated practice on targeted words and it needs to be fun. So games are best!
Teaching techniques for pronunciation
Here are a few games you can use to work on pronunciation.
- Bingo — As with word stress above, Bingo is great for focusing on particular words over a period of time.
- Chinese Whispers — Put students into teams of equal numbers. Give a message (maybe show them something written, or whisper to the group of leaders) to the first in each line. Then students race to pass the message along by whispering from one to another. The final team member runs to you and announces the message. Make sure that there are some of the target sounds in the message.
- Beetlejuice — Remember the movie? (Here’s a trailer.) In the movie they had to same the name (Beetlejuice) three times to make certain things happen. In this game, your students have to say a word (one that they may struggle with) three times in order to get what they want.
- You can choose and change the word as often as you need.
- Different students could have different target words.
- The words could be presented to them hourly/daily on a card or even by email or text message.
- They could be required to repeat their word to leave the class at the end of the lesson, to be allowed to be seated, when they hand in a paper, to receive a treat or reward—it all depends on your class.
These aspects of English grammar are significantly different from Chinese, and can cause confusion.
- Sentence structure — In English we look for a subject (S), verb (V) and often an object (O). In Chinese the subject is not necessary in every sentence.
- Word order — Chinese word order is very different from English, and so students who do a direct word-by-word translation will run into difficulties. Also, dates and addresses in Chinese are presented in the opposite order from English. The date is written year-month-day and addresses are written country, province, city, street, house.
- Adverb phrases — Those phrases of place and time are situated differently in Chinese sentences.
- Articles, inflection and agreement — English has definite and indefinite articles, but Chinese has no articles. Also, in English the verb changes to agree with the number (singular or plural) of the subject, but Chinese words do not change.
- Male and female pronouns — Chinese has (written) pronouns for each of the genders, as well as animals and spiritual beings, but they all sound the same in speech. So Chinese students often have difficulties using the correct pronoun in English.
- Plurals — There are no plurals in Chinese. A number word is placed in front of the noun, or a word that means something like “many.” So, naturally, remembering to change an English noun because it’s plural can be troublesome.
- Verb tenses — English verbs change according to the tense, as well as sometimes by adding auxiliary verbs. Chinese verbs do not change at all. There are a number of ways to express tense in Chinese, such as by adding a time expression or verb particle. So having to change the actual verb in English is confusing for students.
- The verb “to be” — The Subject-Verb-Complement (SVC) type of English sentence is difficult for Chinese students, as they tend to miss out the verb “to be.” For example, “The boy is sick” will become “Boy sick.”
- Superlatives — Chinese language does not include the wealth of superlatives and extravagant language that English does. In fact, recently the Chinese government banned the use of superlatives in advertising.
- Forms for written and oral language — When you look at English language written down, it’s the same as how you speak. But in Chinese the two do not correspond in the same way. When looking at a piece of Chinese writing, a speaker of the Cantonese language will read the same meaning but with different words and sounds from a Mandarin speaker.
- Literal translation — It’s not possible to translate literally (and get sensible language) from Chinese to English, or vice versa. But, of course, Chinese students would really like to be able to, and will often try—sometimes with amusing results.
A great way to introduce cultural lessons and highlight English grammar in the classroom is with short native clips from the FluentU program.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Teaching techniques for grammar
Don’t let your Chinese students disappear into their dictionaries and word lists, which is often their expectation for language learning. Kindly and gently, with sensitivity to their “shyness,” bring them lots of varied, fun and engaging activities—which they don’t usually expect to see in the classroom.
Use an assortment of activities which involve participation and practice of natural English. For example:
- Watch movies — All students like movies, but especially Chinese students. Watch each movie more than once—maybe once with Chinese subtitles for beginners, and once with English subtitles, and then without. Get students to mimic, anticipate and dramatize favorite scenes. Transfer this learning into reading and writing by dictating snippets of conversation, or getting students to write a retell or a review of part or all of the movie.
- Listen to music — Participate in related activities such as singing along, lip-syncing, completing worksheets, writing reviews or participating in a quiz about the song(s).
- Listen to stories — By using a digital story, students can listen to it again and again. They could listen to you reading it first, and maybe later they could try reading it (aloud) themselves. It could be a homework task which could later translate into an in-class drama exercise (or game), a retelling or a review writing exercise.
- Read the news — There are websites with specially prepared news stories for ESL students. My Chinese students have been notoriously unaware of world news, and thus can find it enlightening while they improve their language skills. This can lead on to speaking activities—drama, quizzes, talks—and writing activities which require natural English.
Cultural Differences Between China and the Western World
Whether you’re teaching Chinese students in a western setting or there’s only one Chinese student in your class, and whether your Chinese students are from Mainland China or elsewhere, the Chinese culture is very strong. Your students will make better progress if you understand and respect it.
And if you’re working in China, then it’s essential to understand the cultural background for your own comfort. Here are some of the most obvious and relevant differences:
5. The importance of education and attitude towards teachers and homework
From the Chinese viewpoint, education is very formal and serious, and teachers are expected to tell students exactly what they need to know. Students are expected to respect teachers, work hard and do lots of homework in order to succeed.
Sometimes the appearance of studying—being present (though not necessarily alert) and learning lists of words—seems to be more important than being engaged in learning.
6. Styles of education and learning in the school, student behavior and motivation
In Chinese education, factual information is important, fantasy is not; science wins over arts. Students expect to be taught steps to solve problems. Teachers must not be questioned or challenged. Reading is simply the decoding of information and facts rather than a pleasurable occupation or discovering opinions to be responded to.
So it comes as a surprise to them—whether within a mainstream western school or with a foreign teacher in their school in China—to find that they’re expected to problem-solve, without necessarily being told exactly how. There could even be more than one answer to a question.
You’ll want to facilitate and model problem solving, and your students should be actively involved rather than passively observing. Encourage them to question you, and help them discover that reading is a constructive process.
7. Families and home life
In Mainland China until very recently, only wealthy families (who could afford the fine) and ethnic minorities in rural areas were permitted to have more than one child. So most children have no siblings, and no aunts or uncles.
Each child has six doting adults (parents and grandparents) pressuring them to succeed for the sake of the family. On top of that, there are far more boys than girls, and boys are often treated with more deference than girls.
8. Special interests and special abilities
Chinese students love numbers, math and things that are predictable. They don’t seem to mind if things are complicated.
So if a class of students appears bored, try giving out something like word search puzzles and immediately you’ll see such total engagement that even recess is of no interest until they’re finished.
9. The importance of “face”
Nobody likes to feel stupid or be made to look silly. But you have to realize that “losing face” is a much, much bigger issue than that with Chinese people—especially adults, but also with children and teenagers.
If you notice a change in your students, you might like to consider that they have lost face, and look for ways for them to save face again.
Handling cultural differences in a classroom setting
Whether you have ELL students in a mainstream classroom in a western country, or are teaching English to students in China, you have already taken the first step: being aware of the differences.
Depending on the age and ability of your students, open discussion times about cultural expectations can make students (western and Chinese) more sensitive to other cultures. Groups of students could complete projects and present talks on their own or each other’s cultures.
Students in a Chinese classroom—especially if they haven’t yet had much experience with foreign teachers—may at first be surprised, or even somewhat disconcerted, and hopefully eventually delighted by your teaching style.
Enjoy the respect you get just from being the teacher, and pay attention to these differences to keep on earning your students’ respect by being an effective, fun teacher. Good luck!