This short report was compiled at the end of the first term of the 2005-2006 academic year. It was written as an addendum to the grade sheets that I handed in to the school's administration (at Jinan Railway Polytechnic, my employer at the time). My main purpose in writing it was to compile a short list of the most prevailing ESL issues that I encountered time and again during my first two years of teaching English in China.
In this paper, I discuss what I feel to be the most common student errors. I list and explain these along with some tactics I have employed in trying to deal with them. Two separate main parts allow for the separate discussions of pronunciation and grammatical errors.[top]
Throughout the grade sheets that accompany this paper, you will find many references to something which I call end stress (or the 'end stress pronunciation problem'). This problem seems to be the number one problem weakening the students' English.
The problem is typified by a lengthening of the last syllable of a word with a vowel sound. That vowel sound ranges from a slight /ə/ all the way to a long /a:/ (e.g. /'θiŋka:/ or /'θiŋkə/ instead of /'θiŋk/). This is caused, in my opinion, by an unbalanced application of stress during pronunciation of the word. Many students tend to emphasize, to a larger or smaller degree, every syllable of every word (which might be an influence from their native tongue). In addition, they stress the end of each syllable (especially word-end syllables) too much. The resulting energy pattern feels comfortable to them, but is quite wrong in English.
I have found that it helps to make students aware of this problem. I also tell them that to improve upon it, they have to place more stress at the beginning of words and syllables. I sometimes encourage students to do this in exaggeration, which allows them to see and feel phonetics at work: using this tactic, the tongue and oral cavity will use and lose energy at the beginning of a word and will be unable to apply excessive stress levels at the end of words. [top]
Apparently, Mandarin Chinese does not have the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ that many other languages do have. At times this creates a problem for Chinese students trying to correctly pronounce that sound in English words. Most students are able to use the sound, especially when they pay special attention to its correct pronunciation. However, in more informal (and thus less careful) speech, I've found that they often trip on a word like 'very' (which is often pronounced as /'weri/ rather than /'veri/).
It often seems enough to make students aware of their mispronunciation.
In addition, it has at times helped students when I pointed out that the voiced labiodental fricative has its voiceless counterpart in /f/. As such, simply adding voice when forming an /f/ creates a correct /v/. As many students are not familiar with the concept of voice, I ask them to put a finger on their vocal chords and alternately pronounce /s/ and /z/ for longer periods of time. I then explain that the vibration they feel while they pronounce /z/ is voice. Lastly, I ask them to pronounce the /f/ sound while trying to create the same vibration as they felt while pronouncing /z/. This seems to work for most students, and is a good way of making them more familiar with the /v/ sound. [top]
The /h/ sound presents a problem for some students because for this sound, as with the /v/ sound, there does not seem to be a corresponding sound in Mandarin Chinese. The voiceless glottal fricative /h/ sound should actually be pronounced rather softly, without excessive friction in the glottis. Many Chinese students, however, make a mistake in thinking that the written 'h' in English should be pronounced similarly to the written 'h' in Chinese Pinyin. That presents a problem because the sound represented by the Chinese written 'h' seems to be closer to the voiceless uvular fricative /χ/ sound, which is pronounced with a large amount of friction. Although this sound is used in some European languages (e.g. Dutch, German and some Eastern European languages) it is not a standard phoneme of the English language. [top]
An often heard mistake is the shift of a vowel-enclosed voiced postalveolar fricative /ʒ/ sound to the /r/ sound. This mistake is especially common in the words 'usual' and 'usually', which should be /'ju:ʒuəl/ but is too often pronounced as /'ju:ruəl/. To combat this specific problem, only helping the students pronounce syllable by syllable seems to help. [top]
The /l/ sound is a common phoneme in English, and is also part of the standard phonemic system of Mandarin Chinese. Yet, for some reason unbeknownst to me, it is difficult for many Chinese students to correctly pronounce words such as 'will' (often pronounced as /'wi:r/). All I can offer as to the cause of this mistake is conjecture: as Mandarin Chinese does not use the /l/ (or any other consonant sound, except perhaps for the alveolar and velar nasals /n/ and /ŋ/) at word end, the appearance of the /l/ at the end of syllables in English might befuddle native speakers of Chinese. [top]
One of the most common grammatical mistakes I have come across has been the ellipsis of 'to be'. It appears to be a direct consequence of the students being native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. As I'm told, the Chinese verb 是 (shi4) does not fulfill all of the same functions as the verb 'to be' in English. Yet, the words are often equated in dictionaries. Because of this, students are led to think that their usage is functionally similar, and so they often neglect to use 'to be' when it is required in English. Examples of this are bountiful: "I from He Ze", "I a little bored", "I tired" and "my mother very kindly."
Another mistake in the same vein is the use of the distinctly Chinglish expression 'there have'. Instead of using the correct English phrasing 'there is' or 'there are', many students translate directly the Chinese equivalent 有 ('you3'), which leads to frequently heard sentences like "In my hometown, there have a few beautiful places."
A last mistake that seems closely linked to students' unfamiliarity with 'to be' is the occasional overuse of the verb, undoubtedly born out of the confusion many students face. Most students seem to be aware that there are some functional differences between 'to be' and 是, but they are not clear as to the specifics. This leads some of them to occasionally insert 'to be' in places where it is not at all appropriate: "I'm study", "I'm want a good job" or "she is win." [top]
It is unfortunately too common to hear students refer to, for example, their mother using the personal pronoun 'he', and to their father as 'she'. Again, the problem seems to lie in Mandarin Chinese. While in writing, the two genders are each assigned a different pronoun (她 for women and 他 for men), in speaking, they are represented by the same syllabic word 'ta1'. It seems hard then for many (many) students to use the correct English forms appropriately.
Moreover, some students have shown themselves to be uneasy with the subjective and objective cases of the third person singular personal pronoun. Some students use the objective forms nhimo and nhero in sentences where these pronouns are functionally subjects, while other students do the opposite. Sentences like pHim is a good football playerq or pI enjoy talking to sheq are, regrettably, heard too often in many a Chinese classroom.
Another related mistake is the occasional formation of inexistent possessive pronouns. Instead of using the correct 'his' and 'her' forms, students form their own, incorrect forms "he's" and "she's" (e.g. "he's mother is a friendly woman"). Again, I surmise that Mandarin Chinese is at the origin of the problem. Where Chinese has the delightfully easy 的 modifier to turn any noun into its possessive form, English has several rules on how to express possession, which all depend on whether you are working from a noun, a proper noun or a pronoun. It is undoubtedly a confusing rule set for Chinese students. [top]
With the fear of sounding repetitive, I must chalk the following widespread phenomenon up to the fact that the students are all native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Though I'm far from being an expert, I have come to understand that Chinese is a much more modular language than English. As such, Chinese grammar has a distinctly different way of dealing with past tenses. Where in English, one basically takes the verb-word itself and applies changes to it internally, Mandarin Chinese expresses the concept of past by adding unchanging suffixes (过 and 了 come to mind) to verb infinitives. For native speakers of Chinese then, mastering English tenses becomes a daunting challenge (although, perhaps not as daunting as mastering a language with even more internal changes, such as German). Most Chinese students I know have problems correctly using the simple past, and there are only a handful that know and are able to use other past tenses, such as past progressive, past perfect or past perfect progressive. [top]
A last common mistake I should mention here is the frequent confusion of the present and past participles. The most common example of this is the confusion of 'bored' and 'boring'. It is not a trivial task to explain the difference of active (in the case of the present participle) and passive voice (in the case of the past participle) to students who do not have a firm grasp of English grammar. Yet with some persistence, it is possible to explain that saying 'I feel boring' is actually an self-derogatory comment. Another common example of the same problem is the use of 'tired' where 'tiring' is appropriate (e.g. "My job is very tired"). [top]
This report has hoped to provide a short list of the most common errors made by students of Jinan Railway Polytechnic Institute. As all of my students at that time were native to China's eastern Shandong province, the list can be used as a reference of the mistakes common in that province.
January 5th, 2006