Chinese Accents

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If Chinese is your native language, you may be using the Chinese “sound system” when you speak English. In Chinese, tone is word-specific, but in English tone is statement-based and must be adjusted for what’s new, what’s different, and what’s relative.

In Chinese, tone is word-specific, but in English tone is statement-based. Click To Tweet

You may not have learned much about this if you studied English as a foreign language. Some of these differences won’t have great impact but some cause significant problems for you.

You may not have as much trouble understanding American English speakers as they have understanding you.  This is because the tonal nature of Chinese helps you hear the intonation (tone) of English speakers, and intonation is very important in English. So you can hear it, but you don’t use it!

Pronunciation of English vowels and consonants, however, may be a big problem. There are sounds made in English that have no similar sound in Chinese. When you speak in English, you may not use certain consonants. Your brain, which is following a Chinese system, doesn’t recognize the need for them.  And there are some English vowels that seem similar to Chinese vowel sounds; you may substitute Chinese vowels for them.  However English has many more vowel sounds that much be articulated well for effective use of stress, rhythm, and intonation.

As I said before, you may be applying a set of Chinese “sound rules” to English, but English has its own unique sound rules.  Chinese is tonal, so your ear is wonderfully tuned to changes in pitch levels.  However, since tone does not change the literal meaning of each word in English (as it does in Chinese), you may be ignoring tone in English.  You shouldn’t.

Whereas in Chinese, tone defines each word, in English tone defines statements’ relationships to each other. Tone also defines a speaker’s attitude, which might not literally stated. It’s very important to learn how to use and interpret tone in English.

Some common interference points between Chinese and English:

  • Vowel system; English has more vowels that occur in stressed syllables so they’re very important to learn
  • Consonant system; final English consonants are difficult
  • Voicing of sounds (especially at word-end)
  • Initial consonant clusters
  • Rhythm and stress differences; each English word has its own rhythm and stress pattern, and you must learn to use them
  • Very different purposes for pitch and intonation; English statements have melodies that cue meaning and relationships between a speaker’s statements and phrases
  • Sentence intonation patterns that act as directional signals to listeners
  • Use of liaisons and pauses to define thought groups

Here are 2 short YouTube videos of MRI’s showing a person speaking Chinese and a person speaking English. Look for differences in the movements of the tongue, jaws, lips, and throat.

Another potential source of interference may be that the vocal organization of your presentation or speech doesn’t match the needs of your listening audience.  Just as commas, quotation marks, and other markings signal changes in written English, intonation signals direct your listeners when you speak. It helps them follow your message and logic.

Just as commas & quotes = signals in writing; pausing & pitch = signals in speaking. Click To Tweet

If you are a private student, we will diagnose your current pronunciation habits, define your goals, determine your skills and knowledge in target areas, and create a plan that guides your accent reduction practice and leads you to a better sound in English. Contact me to discuss a customized online private pronunciation course.

If you are a teacher, coach or tutor, take a look at my e-guides on Amazon. They are written for specific language groups, but my approach can be adapted and the strategies can be adjusted and applied to other language speakers.

Peggy Tharpe teaches, coaches, and publishes about English pronunciation and intonation. She believes that if you understand why something is happening, you're better able to address it and change it. She teaches the "why" of pronunciation as well as the "what" and "how".