TEFL Problems for learners in Hong Kong


As a former British colony, English is widely used in Hong Kong. Students here generally start learning English at the age of 3. As the first language of most students in Hong Kong is Cantonese, the problems for learners of English here mostly relate to the differences between Chinese and English. Since the two languages belong to two different linguistic families, there are a lot of differences in terms of syntax and word formation, which give rise to a lot of common errors produced by the students here.

A) Agreement and word form

This is one of the biggest problems for learners in Hong Kong due to the fact that modern English involves a lot of inflections, conjugation and declension, which are basically absent in Chinese. Thus learners in Hong Kong always have difficulties in adapting to the frequent changes in the suffix of English words with respect to, number, case, tense, aspect, degree of comparison, person and parts of speech. For example:

I gave him a pen.????L?@???C

He has given me two pens.?L???F??????C

His mother often gives him pens.?L?????`?`???L?@????C

In the above sentences, only one character ????? is needed to express both ??I?? and ??me?? in Chinese, and ???L?? for expressing ??he??, ??his?? and ??him??. Such change of case in English is definitely a trouble for students in Hong Kong as they need to understand and remember the rules for such changes.

Below are some sentences written by some of my students in Hong Kong which show the problem of agreement and the change in word form:

1.He said he want to punish me. ??corrected version: He said he wanted to punish me.

2.When we were playing, one of my friend, Jonathan, broke his leg.

??corrected version: When we were playing, one of my friends, Jonathan, broke his leg.

3.I will go to sleep earlier and try to do things more faster.

?? corrected version: I will go to sleep earlier and try to do things faster.

4.I am writing to give you some advise.

?? corrected version: I am writing to give you some advice.

Actually the concept of agreement in numbers and tense may not be very complicated, but it does take some time for learners whose native language is Chinese to get use to it, as they don??t have to consider this problem in their mother language.

B) Use of conjunctions

As Chinese language relies on semantic coherence rather than formal cohesion, the use of conjunctions in Chinese is far less frequent than that in English. Take the following two lines of Chinese poem as an example:



When the above poem is translated into English, it will become: An old road, the wind blowing from the west and a thin horse A small bridge, flowing water and the people living nearby

Notice the addition of articles and the conjunction ??and?? in the English translation. Actually the formation of English sentences mainly base on hypotaxis; while in Chinese sentences formed by parataxis. Thus, conjunctions and relative pronouns are the important ??tools?? to join sentences or clauses in English, but not in Chinese. This is one of the reasons why conjunctions are always underused by Hong Kong students. Instead, they tend to either misuse or overuse the comma (,).


Due to the word limit, the problems mentioned in this essay are only some of the major ones faced by Hong Kong students based on my limited teaching experience. And I I believe that extensive reading and writing can help to prevent Hong Kong students from making the errors mentioned above, especially for the problem on agreement, because I think that basically the rules are simple, but it is just a matter of ??habit?? for the students to apply them in actual practice. Reference

Lian Shu-neng Contrastive Studies of English and Chinese Beijing: Higher Education Press, 1993

Author: Simon Yip

Date of post: 2007-04-12