When we start learning a foreign language, we come across new unfamiliar sounds and stress and intonation patterns. Before we truly master them, we tend to cope by applying the pronunciation rules of our native language and using familiar sounds instead of foreign ones.
While it is a common and natural situation, it can also lead to a strong foreign accent, pronunciation mistakes, and misunderstanding. The more different your native and target languages are the higher the risk of mistakes.
Our last blog post explored ways to get rid of your foreign accent when speaking a foreign language. In this article, we will take a look at the most common pronunciation mistakes Chinese speakers – Hongkongers in particular – make when speaking English, how these mistakes occur, and how to deal with them.
Differences in Phonology Between English and Chinese
A strong foreign accent and pronunciation mistakes are more likely to appear when the two languages involved have very different phonology. English and Chinese are a good example of this.
Both languages belong to different language families (Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan, respectively), different cultures, and have very different histories. This results in significant differences in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Here are some of the differences between English and Chinese pronunciation that can make it difficult for Chinese speakers to learn English.
There are more vowels in the English language, which results in quite a few vowel phonemes that don’t exist in Chinese. In Chinese, there is no distinction between short and long vowels – a distinction which is very significant in English (ship/sheep, full/fool, etc.). English diphthongs such as in ‘weigh’ or ‘deer’ tend to be pronounced as single sounds.
Certain consonant sounds typical of English (l, r, v) simply don’t exist in the Chinese language. Imagine trying to make a sound that’s not just different but doesn’t occur in your native language! Also, consonants are much more common in English and tend to be omitted in Chinese.
Troublesome Tones & Intonation
Chinese is a tonal language, and the tone with which you pronounce a word changes its meaning. In English, intonation is used to express emotion, not meaning, typically in a sentence, and not every single word.
Word stress is more significant in the English language; it is more prominent and can differentiate meaning – for example, import/ (n), import (v) or conflict (n), conflict (v ) – in Chinese.
Common Pronunciation Problems For Cantonese Speakers
As a result of the differences mentioned above, Chinese speakers tend to make quite a few pronunciation mistakes when learning English. This is by no means not one-sided: English speakers tend to struggle with Chinese pronunciation as well, but that may be a topic for a different article.
Here are some of the most common pronunciation errors made by Chinese speakers. We are not listing the errors to teach you incorrect pronunciation. On the contrary, the list is here to forewarn and forearm you. As a learner, if you are aware of these potential problems, it will be easier for you to avoid them – we’ll discuss how in a later section.
Word Stress Worries
According to a survey conducted in Hong Kong in 2016, most English learners with an education level of at least Secondary 5 mispronounce common English words, the most common error being word stress.
Linguists still argue if word stress exists in the Chinese language. What can be said for sure is that tones carry much more significance than stress. Moreover, most words in Chinese have only one syllable, and there is no need for word stress as such.
In English, word stress is much more important. In some cases, it even differentiates the meaning of two words. But even if it doesn’t, misplacing the stress makes one’s speech sound ‘wrong’, ‘foreign’, and difficult to understand.
As the concepts of stress are quite different in English and Chinese, Chinese learners of English tend to place stress on the wrong syllable and try to use tones instead of stress.
Vexing Vowel Sounds
As previously mentioned, some English vowels have no equivalents in the Chinese language, and you can probably guess, or know from experience, that pronouncing such unfamiliar sounds is quite hard. Thus, confusing English vowels is another pronunciation error common among Hongkongers and other Chinese speakers.
In English, there are long vowel sounds and short vowel sounds. The vowel sound in the word reach, for example, is long, whereas the word rich has a short vowel sound. Hong Kong Cantonese speakers are often challenged by the difference and tend to produce sounds somewhere in between.
In more extreme cases, it may lead to some confusion as the shortening of the vowel creates a new word: ‘beat’ becomes ‘bit’, ‘beech’ becomes ‘bitch’, and so on.
Mispronouncing words ending with consonants is a sometimes a problem. Very few words in the Chinese language end with consonants and consonant clusters, except for a few ending in ’n’ or ‘ng’.
Hongkongers mainly use two strategies to cope with this: they can either add ‘ah’ or ‘eu’ at the end of the word (for example, and-eu, kind-ah), or drop the final consonant or cluster completely (card becomes car, change becomes chain).
Similar to vowels, some consonant sounds common in English such as ‘r’, ‘v’, ‘l’ just don’t exist in Chinese. I often hear Chinese speakers try to replace these sounds with the ones they know. This sometimes makes the original words hardly recognisable.
For example, ‘love’ becomes ‘lub’, ‘very’ becomes ‘wawy’, ‘three’ becomes ‘fee’, and so on. Also, the ‘l’ sound is often replaced by the ‘n’ sound. ‘bill’ becomes ‘bin’, ‘ball’ becomes ‘born’, ‘slow’ becomes ‘snow’.
5 English Pronunciation Mistakes in Hong Kong
Dealing With Mistakes & Pronunciation Problems
Each of the examples listed above, taken individually, don’t seem that scary. However, taken together, they can lead to misunderstanding and sometimes even embarrassing situations.
Having an accent when you speak a foreign language is totally normal, and you don’t necessarily have to get rid of it. For instance, most native Chinese Hong Kongers speak Cantonese influenced English – or ‘Chinglish’. This is not just an accent but a way of speaking English that is heavily influenced by their native language and the local culture. Nevertheless, it is important to avoid the mistakes that lead to miscommunication.
Tips For Hongkongers To Avoid Common English Pronunciation Mistakes
There are no quick fixes to perfect pronunciation but there certainly are some highly effective exercises that you can start to practice today!
Learn more below about slowing down and taking your time, being mindful of the differences between your native language and your target language, the importance of practise, and finding the right English teacher.
Or, for a more in depth look at how to fix your pronunciation challenges the English teaching team at Q Language share 12 great tips to set you on the path to perfect pronunciation.
Slow Down, Take Your Time.
Don’t rush when you study English pronunciation. Study the basics carefully. Take time to repeat the trickiest sounds as many times as you need to. If you do, it will save you time in the future. If you don’t, you may have to come back to the basics again and again while you learn. This can slow down your progress significantly.
Be Aware of The Differences
Pay close attention to the differences between English and Chinese. Some of the differences in English and Chinese phonology may not seem that significant. However, it is important to study them carefully. Listen to a lot of English for good examples. Watch videos explaining the differences on YouTube or consult with your teacher. Understanding the differences is one of the first steps to mastering correct pronunciation.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practice, practice, practice. This piece of advice might sound simple, but it also might be one of the most crucial ones. You can’t possibly learn correct pronunciation without practice. Even at the very beginning, start by repeating separate sounds and words out loud, after a recording or after your teacher. This may also be useful at higher levels: if you keep making the same mistakes, go back to the basics and do some pronunciation drills.
Find a Good English Teacher in Hong Kong
There are hundreds of English teachers in Hong Kong but make sure you find a good one! You should try to find one that recognises the importance of pronunciation as well as fluency.
Some teachers believe that correcting pronunciation during a lesson might slow students’ improvement in fluency. This can be true to a degree, but a good English teacher should not allow you to continue pronouncing sounds incorrectly. Doing so will likely cause you problems in the future.
If you’d like to talk to a member of our dedicated team of professional native-speaker teachers of English about correcting your pronunciation mistakes, contact us here.