Professionals from China who are talented enough to learn English face many challenges. It is not enough to learn the English language, one must learn how to pronounce it. Native speakers of all the dialects of Chinese face similar difficulties while speaking English, because of the differences between the languages. Here are the top five key pronunciation tips I help my Chinese clients master when learning to speak English effectively:
- Pronounce sounds at the end of words: Many Chinese speakers of English omit consonants at the ends of words: Most Chinese words end in vowels, but most English words end in one or more consonants. Result: Chinese speakers may leave off the final consonants of words or may simplify consonant clusters. For example, ‘most’ may become ‘mos’, ‘for’ may become ‘fo’.
- Do not add extra vowels: Because most Chinese words end in vowels, Chinese speakers of English often add a neutral vowel sound (frequently the schwa, or ‘uh’ sound) after final consonants or between consonant clusters. Result: “cat” may end up like “cat-uh”, “please” may end up like “puh-lease”.
- Lengthen your vowels: English vowels are held out longer than Chinese vowels and they vary in length, depending on intonation. Result: If a vowel sound is too short, it is frequently difficult for the listener to understand the words, even if the sounds are accurate.
- Learn the American English intonation: The Chinese language uses pitch differences to signify meaning in every syllable, whereas English uses pitch and vowel length in more varied ways to express emotion or emphasis. Result: Chinese speakers may sound monotone to the listener or be difficult to understand because the pitch they use may be very different from usual English intonation patterns.
- Make a concerted effort to learn the English ‘r’ and ‘th’ sounds: Cantonese speakers may use an ‘l’ sound for an ‘r’, or the ‘r’ at the end of the word may be omitted. For all Chinese dialects, the ‘th’ sounds (there are two) are often mispronounced as ‘s, z, t, d’. Result: The phrase, ‘rather than rush’ may sound like ‘lah-dah dan lush’.
The Good News: My Chinese clients learn how to master these areas and go on to speak English very understandably and successfully! The process involves learning the differences, practicing new patterns of pronunciation with guidance, and creating new speaking habits. It is not difficult, but involves commitment!
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