Problems for learners in China Teaching English as a Second Language


Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in China is for the most part pleasant and exciting. Students are eager to learn. However, one of the frustrations ESL teachers often complain about is that students seem to make the same mistakes repetitively. Learners will often transfer the rules of their first language to express something in their second language. This transference happens when they have insufficient knowledge of the rules of the second language. In China, students fall back on the rules of their first language (Mandarin) when they do not know the rules of the second language (English). The result is a poor form of English, informally referred to as "Chinglish". The errors that occur are also called language interference errors. These errors affect students’ academic performance in English. Foreign teachers with limited knowledge of Mandarin may not even know why the same kinds of errors are being made repeatedly. Teachers feel frustrated and discouraged. To find textbooks that provide information on common interference errors and ways to “teach” them, is hard. Knowing where these errors come from may guide teachers to deal with these interference errors effectively. In this article we will identify some of the most common errors made by Chinese students in writing, as well as offer some strategies for teachers to use in the ESL classroom.

There are a number of causes leading to language interference errors. Errors are chiefly due to differences between the two languages, structurally and phonologically. The greater the difference, the more acute the learning difficulties are. The differences between English and Mandarin are many. These differences lead to confusion of the appropriate gender and number inflection for subject and object pronouns. For example, students confuse "he with she" and "him with her" and vice versa. In spoken Mandarin they do not have pronouns indicating the gender of the object or subject! Even an intermediate student can be heard saying, "I love my husband. She is so handsome." When one looks at sentences in Mandarin, verbs frequently appear in the final position as opposed to English verbs that appear in the middle of sentences. Another example of a big difference between the languages is that in Mandarin, nouns stay the same, but "counting words" are used to indicate plural. Students do not add the –s to plurals. It is common to hear sentences like "Monkeys like to eat banana." The first noun was pluralized, but not the second noun. This is not only a grammatical error in writing, but happens frequently in speaking too. Mandarin speakers use a specific time phrase to mark the time. Typical sentences that can be found in the writing and speaking of ESL learners are "I yesterday eat cake" and "She eat rice". The correct form, "I ate cake yesterday" and "She eats rice" would be considered redundant in a Mandarin way of thinking! There is no lexical equivalent for the definite article "the". Students are confused about when to use it and when to omit it. They often place the definite article in front of a proper name. For example, they often produce, "I want to go to the Beijing for the weekend." Mandarin uses double transitions which English speakers consider redundant. To Mandarin speakers it is logical to say, "Because Kate is English, therefore Kate can speak English." Multi-syllabic words cause confusion for since ESL learners since most words in Mandarin tend to have one morpheme and Mandarin sentences are shorter. Mandarin nouns, adjectives and adverbs do not show suffixes as they do in English. The word "happy" can be a noun, adverb and adjective in Mandarin. Many ESL teachers in China consider the incorrect use of adverbs and adjectives the most common interference errors. Students produce English such as "You can sing beautiful" instead of "You can sing beautifully". These reoccurring errors hinder students´ English performance in tests and English assignments and may also be detrimental to their confidence in using their second language. As stated earlier, an insufficient knowledge of the second language´s grammar rules, forces students to fall back on the rules of their first language. Language interference errors occur. For example, students repeatedly ignore the agreement between the verb and subject. Another common mistake students make is the use of a comma instead of a period at the end of a sentence. In Mandarin sentences are separated with the use of a comma. Since many ESL schools put the main focus on teaching communication skills, grammar is often neglected. This poses a big problem for elementary school students. They enter elementary school with acceptable speaking skills but they have tremendous difficulty in writing English sentences and paragraphs. Many schools underestimate the value of teaching grammar at an earlier age. They think grammar is too abstract. Lack of age and developmentally appropriate English grammar resources specifically designed for Chinese children, add to the problem. It is hard to address language interference errors in schools with a No-Mandarin-During- English- Time-policy. Children do not get the opportunity to make the necessary links and comparisons between English and Mandarin. Again, though knowledge of the students’ first language is not compulsory, it may help teachers in understanding the interference errors made by students.

In general (according to one experience teacher in China), it is important to reform the way English is taught in Chinese schools. The most crucial improvement needed lies in the adoption of methods aimed at enhancing students communicative abilities. Instead of making students spend all or most of their time memorizing grammatical rules, English classes should focus on developing the abilities to speak and write the language. Toward this goal, the textbooks that are used in schools for teaching English should be drastically revised or rewritten. Staff recruitment as well as parental and auxiliary staff instruction may be needed if teachers want to make an impact on more than just their classroom.