Pronunciation Problems Solved

Pronunciation Problems Shared by Most Chinese English Speakers And How to Solve Them!

Practicing pronunciation word by word is painfully slow. 

What if we told you that most native Chinese speakers share common English pronunciation problems? And that those common pronunciation problems are easy to identify and fix?

Targeted speech training is the fastest and most effective way to improve English pronunciation problems. By addressing a few key issues, Chinese English learners will quickly see a dramatic improvement in their pronunciation.

Part 1: Intonation

What is it exactly? 

Intonation is the rise and fall of pitch when speaking. In English, rising and falling intonation is used to identify if the remark is a question, statement, or sarcasm.  

Let’s consider how intonation can be used to alter the meaning of the phrase, “That’s right.” 

Check this video to hear the examples below.

Issuing a Statement
When issuing a statement, the speaker’s voice should fall slightly on the final word.
Pronunciation Problems
Asking a Question
When asking a question, the speaker’s should rise on the final word of the phrase. 
Using Sarcasm
When using sarcasm (a very useful skill for fluent speakers), the speaker’s should fall on the first word of a statement and rise on the first word of a question.

So what’s the problem? 

See how confusing three simple words can be if intonation is off? 

Chinese is a tonal language, with the change in tone changing a word’s meaning. By comparison, English intonation happens at the phrasal level. Chinese English speakers have a tendency to apply Chinese intonation patterns when speaking English. This leaves native English speakers confused- especially if the meaning of a phrase can be altered using intonation.  

How can they fix it? 

Native Chinese speakers are used to intonation, so this should be an easy one. They should just remember that intonation applies to the entire phrase, and not any individual word. 

Part 2: Connected Speech

What is it exactly? 

Connected speech is what makes speech sound fluent. It’s the shortcuts native speakers take because they feel confident in their mastery of the language. Connecting speech helps words run together in a fluid stream instead of sounding chopping and clunky. 

Connected speech has five main areas: linking, intrusion, elision, assimilation, and geminates. It all sounds complicated but the message is clear- native English speakers prioritize sounding fluent over perfectly pronouncing each individual word. 

Check this video to hear the examples below.

Linking- When the last sound of a word is a consonant and the first sound of the next word is a vowel, you get linking.Connected Speech - Linking
Intrusion- Intrusion is when a /j/, /w/, or /r/ sound inserts itself between two other vowel sounds. Connected Speech - Intrusion
Elision- One sound is replaced by the other, stronger, sound beside it. The final letter of the first word is generally swallowed to make way for the second sound. Connected Speech - Elision
Assimilation- one sound changes to be more like another soundConnected Speech - Assimilation
Geminates- when two of the same sounds are back to back, causing the repeated sound to lengthenPronunciation Problems - Geminates

So what’s the problem? 

Unlike English, most words in Chinese are a single syllable. Because of this, native Chinese speakers attempt to separate English words, rather than connecting them smoothly. In English, the words that are spoken have an effect on each other and are not always pronounced separately with a pause in the middle. 

How can they fix it? 

The first step in improving connected speech is to listen to English being used by native speakers. Learners can watch or listen to a movie, television show, or podcast in English and listen for the areas of connected speech described above.  They can pause when they hear examples of connected speech and repeat after the speaker three times. If they want more lessons on this topic, BBC has created a great series on English connected speech here.

Part 3: Vowels & Vowel Confusion

What is it exactly? 

When learning to read and speak English, vowels are half the battle for Chinese English as a second language learners. 

Long vowel sounds are easy- just say the letter name and you’re right on track. All long vowel sounds have at least one corresponding short vowel sound.

Short vowels→ bat, cup, pin

Long vowels→ cake, pine, tone

So what’s the problem? 

Chinese has fewer vowel sounds than English, which means that native Chinese speakers must learn how to position their mouth and tongue in new and different ways when attempting to pronounce English vowels. 

Short i vs. Short e
/ɪ/ vs. /i/
Two commonly confused vowel sounds are the English short i “ih” vowel sound and the short e “eh” vowel sound. 
Pronunciation Problems
Short e vs. Short a
/e/ vs. /æ/
Native Chinese speakers also have a tendency to confuse short e “eh” and short a “ah” vowel sounds. 
Pronunciation Problems

In Chinese pronunciation, long and short vowels can be used interchangeably without changing the meaning of the word. Not so in English. In English, the meaning of the word changes as the vowel sound changes.

Learners have to take vowel sounds seriously. Asking for a “bed for the night” vs. a “bad for the night” will get them very different results. 

How can they fix it? 

In Chinese, vowels are usually held for shorter periods of time. A good rule of thumb for native Chinese speakers is to make the vowel sounds in English longer than they normally would when speaking their native language. 

Practicing the pronunciation for minimal pairs like “bed” and “bad” will help fine tune their ear to the nuances of English vowel pronunciation. It is easier to hear the difference between “bed” and “bad” because of the voiced consonants after the vowels. Choosing minimal pairs to practice ending with voiced consonants is helpful to fix these common pronunciation problems. 

Short i vs. Short e
/ɪ/ vs. /i/
Pronunciation Problems
Short e vs. Short a
/ɛ/ vs. /æ/
Pronunciation Problems
Short o vs. o
/α/ vs/ /o/
Pronunciation Problems

Part 4: Consonants & Ending Consonants

What is it exactly? 

Consonants make up 21 of the 26 letters of the English alphabet. All words need one or more vowels, and 99% of words in the English language also require one or more consonants. 

Any sound that isn’t a vowel is a consonant. The sounds associated with the letters the following letters are consonants: b, c,d,f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, z.

So what’s the problem? 

There is a common theme to all the pronunciation problems we have covered. Most pronunciation problems are created either because sounds follow different patterns in English than they do in Chinese or because the sounds simply do not exist in Chinese at all. 

Consonants are no exception. Some consonants that appear regularly in the English language aren’t used at all in Chinese. When trying to produce these sounds, native Chinese speakers will often inadvertently modify them slightly.  The result? A sound that is close to the intended one in terms of how it is articulated in the mouth, but noticeably different to native speaker’s ear. This can often be overlooked by those listening to the speaker, but it can cause confusion when the mispronounced sound unintentionally results in the production of a different word in English!

Meanwhile, words ending in consonants, and consonant clusters, while common in English, do not exist in Chinese. So, the placement of the consonant has a big impact.

Chinese speakers often either drop ending consonants completely, or break them up by inserting a vowel sound.
Unfamiliar Consonants 
/r/ /v/ and θ/

Depending on the dialect, native Chinese speakers tend to replace the /r/ and /v/ sounds with /b/ or /w/. This is because the way these sounds are created in the mouth are somewhat similar to /r/ and /v/.

The unvoiced th sound, which involves the biting of the tongue, doesn’t exist in Chinese, so many Chinese people simply replace it with an s sound because “th” and “s” are articulated very similarly in the mouth. 
Pronunciation Problems
Ending Consonants and Consonant Clusters

This is a common mistake unique to Chinese people. Chinese students tend to stress the last sound of a word and produce an extra syllable. For example, “and” becomes “an-duh.”

Words ending in consonants are also hard to find in the Chinese language—except for those ending in “n” or “ng”.  Chinese students will pronounce English words ending in consonant sounds with an “uh” vowel sound at the end of the word, or they omit the final consonant sound entirely.
Pronunciation Problems

How can they fix it? 

Unfamiliar Consonants   
/r/  /v/ and /θ/ 

When attempting to pronounce the letter /v/, speakers should hold the upper lip still while bringing the teeth in contact with the upper lip. 

The /r/ sound can be made by puckering, or rounding, the lips. Tongue front and center! 
It may feel a bit silly, but the /θ/ sound can be practiced by holding your tongue while sticking it out slightly and pushing air out of the mouth. Don’t let go! They’ll notice a sound being produced  by the air moving between your top front teeth and your tongue. 
Ending Consonants and Consonant Clusters

The best way to overcome adding vowel sounds to words that end in consonants or consonant clusters is to isolate each of the consonant sounds and repeat them over and over, slowly at first and then more quickly. Chinese students will find that in time, by taking a gradual approach to combining sounds, the extra, unwanted vowels will disappear.

Practice makes perfect, but perfecting your pronunciation problems doesn’t have to take years of practice. Targeted speech training like the examples above are your tried and true life hacks to understandable, fluent English pronunciation. 

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