Part1. Consonants

1. Consonant sounds

Chinese students tend to have difficulty with English sounds that have similar Mandarin counterparts, which are actually different from each other, such as pinyin[b] and English /b/, pinyin[sh] and English/ʃ/, pinyin[s] and English/θ/, pinyin[z] and English/ð/. In this case, Chinese learners tend to replace those sounds with the nearest equivalents in Mandarin.  

Table 1 presents both Mandarin and English consonants arranged by articulatory manner (row) and place (column). Blue items in the Chinese panel denote sounds that do not occur in English, while the sounds in red represent sounds that occur in English but are absent in Chinese.

Table 1. Chart of English and Chinese (Mandarin) consonant phonemes

IPA Mandarin

According to Table 1, the following 15 phonemes in English that are not found in Mandarin (/b/, /ɡ/, /d/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /z/, /s/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /h/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /r/, /j/) contribute to a great deal of difficulties for Chinese learners.

English /ʒ/ and /ʃ/ sound similar to the Mandarin pinyin sounds [r] and [sh] respectively, but actually they are very different in terms of the manner of articulation (for [r] and /ʒ/) and place of articulation (for [sh] and /ʃ/), but a considerable number of the English speakers in China tend to replace the English /ʒ/ and/ʃ/ with the counterparts [r] and [sh] in Mandarin pinyin.

 /ʃ/, //and // in English are similar to Mandarin sounds [sh], [ch], and [zh]. English/ʃ/ is a palato-alveolar fricative, and /tʃ/and , /dʒ/ are palato-alveolar affricates; the former two are voiceless and the latter is voiced.  However, the Mandarin [sh], [ch] and [zh] are palato-alveolar retroflex (i.e. the tip of tongue is curled back against the palate when articulating these sounds), and all are voiceless. Mandarin speakers tend to replace  /ʃ/, //and // by [sh], [ch], and [zh] respectively.

Table 2 listed the features caused by those English consonants that do not exist in Mandarin.

Table 2. English consonants DO NOT exist in Mandarin


 Back nasal /ŋ/ exists in both English and Mandarin and it can only occur at the final position of a syllable in both languages. However, the problem here is /ŋ/ is not an easy sound even in Mandarin. Mandarin speakers tend to merge /n/ and /ŋ/ even when they speak Mandarin, for example, [shen] (身body) is pronounced as [sheng] (生live). This feature can also be found when Mandarin speakers speak English.  For example,  sing/sɪŋ/becomes sin/sIn/, and  rang(/ræŋ/) becomes ran(/ræn/).

 Front nasal /n/ exists in both English and Mandarin, but many Mandarin speakers cannot distinguish /n/ from /l/ when they speak Mandarin, especially speakers from southern China. This unclear distinction between /n/ & /l/ can also be found when they speak English, for example, I’m sorry, I don’t know  /nəʊ/becomes I don’t low  /ləʊ/

 /l/ also exists in both English and Mandarin, but the position of/l/ in English and Mandarin are quite different. In Mandarin, /l/ can only appear at the initial position, while in English it can be the initial, the middle or the final position of the syllable. Apart from the conflation with /n/ when /l/ is at the initial position, /l/ also causes much trouble for mandarin speakers when it is at final position of the syllable or in final consonant cluster, for example,

  • L-vocalization (i.e. the realization of /l/ as vowels (e.g. /u/ or /ɒ/) when it is preceded by a back vowel)
  • e.g. ‘fool’ (/fu:l/)→‘foo-o (/ fuɒ/)
  • Deletion of final /l/   
  •  e.g. ‘fool (/fu:l/)‘foo’(/fu:/)
  • Deletion of /l/ in final consonant cluster 
  • (/wə:ld/) →word(/wə: d/)

2. Voicing

In English, the consonants /b, d, g/ are voiced, but only the voiceless versions of them (i.e. / p, t, k /) exist in Mandarin.  In English, the main distinctions between /p/ & /b/ are voicing and aspiration, but in Mandarin, both [p] & [b] are voiceless sounds and they mainly differ in aspiration. This difference leads to a tendency in many Mandarin speakers to have weak voicing for voiced English consonants, for example:

  • /d/ in duck /dʌk/→[d] in大[dà]
  • /b/ in but /bʌt/→ [b] in爸 [bà]

3. Final consonants

In the Mandarin pinyin system, syllables generally end with a vowel sound. Only two consonant sounds (i.e. back nasal /ŋ/ andfront nasal /n/) can occur at the end of syllables.

Many Mandarin speakers transfer this habit to their pronunciation of English, so they tend to either drop the final consonant or add an extra vowel at the end of the word. As a result, the omission of final consonants and insertion of final vowels in English can cause some misunderstandings. For example, deletion of the final consonant will lead to:

  • help /help/ →  hell /hel/
  • tool /tu:l/→  too / two /tu:/
  • dog /dɒɡ/; dot /dɒt/; doc /dɒk/ → /dɒ/

Some speakers may over-emphasize the final consonant because of the negative transfer of CV syllable structure in Chinese. As a result, the insertion of extra vowel(s) at the end becomes a common problem of Chinese speakers, for example:

  • orange /‘ɒrɪndʒ/→orangee/‘ɒrɪndʒɪ/
  • kill /kɪl/→ killer /’kɪlə/
  • miss /mɪs/missi/mɪsɪ/

4. Consonant clusters

Consonant clusters are very common in English.  They can be at the initial, medial or final position of a word, and they can consist of a cluster of 2 or more consonants – e.g. black/blæk/; spring/sprɪŋ/; must/mʌst/; and text/tekst/.  The word texts /teksts/ has a final blend of 4 consonants.  However, initial and final consonant clusters are never found in Mandarin (Chang, 1987),so they cause considerable difficulty for Chinese speakers of English.

The common problem for consonant clusters is to make an additional syllable by adding a reduced vowel (e.g. /ə/), or to simplify the cluster by omitting the final consonant, for example,

    • place /pleIs/→ palace/p«leIs/
    • books/bʊks/→bookers/bʊkəs/
    • must/mʌst/→ muster /mʌstə/
    • crisps/ krisps/→crispers /krispəs/

Part2. Vowels and Diphthongs

Roach (2004) proposed that the British English vowel system consists of 7 short vowels(/ɪ, e,  Ɛ , æ,  ʌ,  ʊ,  ɒ/),  5 long vowels (/ ɜː ɔː ɑː/),  and 8 diphthongs (/eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/). In Ladeforged &Disner (2012), the American English as spoken by national newscasters has 14 or 15 distinct vowels, which includes 10 monophthongs (/iː, ɪ, Ɛ, æ, ʌ, ɝ, uː, ʊ, ɔː,ɑː/) and 5 diphthongs (/, oʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ/ (p28).

Figure 1. The vowel chart of English

Vowel chart

According to Hung (1986), Huang (2002) and Zhu (2011), there are 10 basic single vowel sounds in Chinese pinyin system.  Based on the 10 basic vowel sounds, there are three kinds of finals(韻母yùn mǔ):

  • 10 single finals (單韻母 dān yùn mǔ): A, o, e, i, ɨ (after [zh], [ch], [sh], [r]), and i (after [z], [c], [s]), ê, u, ü, er (retroflex compound which is made up of /e/ and a retroflex /r/)
  • 13 two/three-vowel compound finals (複韻母fù yùn mǔ): ɑi, ei, ui, ɑo, ou, iu, iɑ,uɑ, ie(iê), üe(üê), iɑo, iou, uɑi
  • 16 nasal compounds (鼻韻母 bí yùn mǔ ) [ ɑn, ɑng, en, eng,ong,in, ing, ün, iɑn , iɑng, iong,uɑn, uen, u Ang, u eng, üɑn]

Figure 2. Comparison between English and Mandarin vowel system

comparison of vowel chart

1. Substituting Mandarin vowels for English vowels.

Some of the Mandarin finals, which are not found in English, have similar correlates in English (See Table 4). Influenced by Mandarin, some Chinese speakers use Chinese sounds to replace the English sounds, for example,

  • Ruler / ruːlə / often becomes [ru:l ɤ] (/ɤ / is “ē” in 喝 hē)
  • Car/ kɑː/ often becomes [k a] (/a/ is “ā” in他 tā)

2. Absence of length contrast

The length contrast between long and short vowels in English does not exist in Mandarin, like ship’ and ‘sheep’ (/i:/&/I/) and ‘full’ and ‘fool’ (/u:/&/U/).Therefore, Chinese learners are not naturally aware of the duration difference of the vowels in English and may not even produce or perceive those differences,  for example,

  • /i:/ and /ɪ/           e.g. Please sit in this seat.       (/sɪt/ vs. /siː t/)
  • /ʊ/ and /uː/        e.g. They pull me to the swimming pool.    (/pʊl/ vs. /puːl/)
  • /ɒ/ and /ɔː/         e.g. He shot from a short distance.  (/ʃɒt/ vs. /ʃɔːt/)

(This feature and examples are shared by Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong)

3. /e/and/æ/

From Figure 2, we can see that there is an [ê] sound in Mandarin which sounds similar to  /e/and/æ/, but the position of [ê] is between /e/and/æ/. As a consequence, a considerable number of Chinese speakers cannot distinguish /e/ from /æ/, and tend to substitute /e/ for /æ/or vice versa, for example,

  • man /mæn/ often becomes men /men/

  • fan /fæn/ often becomes fen /fen/

Some learners even nasalize /æ/ because of the influence of standard Mandarin. Duanmu (2000) mentioned “a vowel preceding a final nasal consonant becomes nasalized, and there may be no oral closure” (p72), so that a word such as can (/kæn/) often becomes nasalize d/kæn/.

4. Diphthongs

Compared with English diphthongs like /əʊ/, /aɪ/, /eɪ/, Mandarin compound finals tend to be pronounced with quicker and smaller lip and tongue movements. “Learners therefore make these sounds too short, with not enough distinction between the two counterparts.”(Chang, 1987, p.225)  Influenced by their L1 (Mandarin), many Chinese learners tend to shorten diphthongs or replace the English diphthongs with English monophthongs, for examples,

  • vow/v/ often becomes /vɔː/
  • cake /kk/ often becomes /kɪk/
  • name /neɪm/ often becomes /nem/
  • sound/ snd / often becomes /sɑːnd/
  • shout (/ʃaʊt/) often becomes shot (/ʃɒt/)
  • join /dʒɔɪn/ often becomes John (/dʒɒn/)
  • point /pɔɪnt/ often becomes pond (/pɒnd/) 

(This feature is shared by both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers)


Notes: In this webpage, “[]” is used for Mandarin Pinyin symbols, and “//” is used for IPA symbols.



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