American English Accent and Pronunciation Work if you’re from China
We know that learning a new language can be a very challenging journey. If you’re learning English right now, you probably know that it’s very different from Chinese. Most Chinese speakers find it hard to speak English fluently (and vice versa for English speakers) and it takes them around two thousand hours of practice to speak it confidently and clearly.
This is because Chinese and English don’t have many things in common. So where it might be easy to memorize a few grammar rules or vocabulary, pronunciation might be the part of the English language where Chinese speakers struggle the most.
Several sounds in English are not in the Chinese language, and even though the Mandarin phonemic list is pretty wide (thanks to the different dialects spoken there), most Chinese speakers tend to make similar mistakes when speaking in English.
So, if you’re a native Chinese speaker and you are learning English right now, this article might help you to improve your pronunciation skills and help you feel more confident when speaking.
Certainly, changing the way you speak is very difficult, and it’s rather impossible to completely remove an accent (and why would you want to?). Some studies show that unless you’re fluent at the age of 10 or before, you are unlikely to sound “native” in a second language, but that’s completely fine!
I believe that having an accent is not a bad thing at all. As it shows that we were able to learn and understand how to communicate in another language, and that’s something that most people don’t do. But of course, sounding like a native speaker, or, better said, communicating clearly and effectively, is an understandable goal.
Remember that learning how to pronounce things in a new language properly is a continuous process, and sometimes it can be a little bit annoying and that’s ok. So, don’t worry! Sometimes, the only thing we can do when learning a new language is to do our best to be understood. But if you can get a little more confidence when talking by improving small aspects of your pronunciation, like learning how to pronounce particular letters or learning the correct way of intonation, then we are going to do it, right?
As I said before, all Chinese speakers tend to have the same pronunciation challenges (no matter their dialect), and we’re here to let you know where you can focus more to get better when speaking. By paying attention to the following tips, you ensure that it’s easier for you to be understood when speaking in English.
What Exactly is an Accent?
An accent (in the language world) is a combination of four main things: intonation, word connections (or liaisons), pronunciation, and voice quality in the spoken word. And I know that this might be a little bit complicated to understand so I’ll make it easier for you: an accent is how we speak according to different factors that create a specific environment to sound a certain way whenever we speak or communicate ourselves by producing sounds.
The muscles that we use for speaking develop themselves in certain ways according to the language that we grow up speaking. When we start learning a new language, we’re asking our muscles to do things that they haven’t done before. Then, when it’s time for these same muscles to make new sounds for a new language, we try.
But oftentimes we compare the new sounds to the only sounds we know. We try to make the new sounds by moving our mouth muscles in the same way – the only way we know. That’s how accents are created.
Improving your communication is still possible. We suggest trying the tips outlined below.
When someone speaks with a Chinese accent, one of the first things that people notice is that there is less intonation or pitch variation in their voice. The sound stays at the same pitch for every word.
This contrasts with how intonation is used in English by making rising or falling pitches when we are asking questions or making statements. When it comes to Chinese, this doesn’t happen, as these factors are given by different grammatical elements in the language.
By changing our intonation, what we do is to change the meaning of the word that has a different pitch, not the whole sentence.
If you’re Chinese, you have the amazing ability to distinguish different tones and pitches. If you want to improve your American pronunciation, what you need to do is to follow this sound scheme: start practicing with the four tones of ma in Mandarin in any sentence.
Start playing with the sounds of the tones of ma, until you find the one that fits the most with what you want to say. For example, In the sentence: “It smells like food”. If you change the word food for ma with the first tone, it might sound a little bit flat, and if you do it with the second tone, then it will sound like a question.
Ask yourself, “Am I making a question or a statement?”, and if your answer is a statement, then try with the fourth and third tone. Once you have an idea of what to look for, then you are going to put back the word “food” in the sentence but by keeping the tone:
- It smells like ma3
- It smells like food3
What you are going to do next is to change the verb for the same tone that you used before, and make a contrast between those two sentences:
- It smells3 like food
- It smells like food3
What we are doing with this exercise is to train you to identify the tone shifts in English that are pretty similar to Chinese.
Linking words is also very important when it comes to speaking with an American accent. Americans tend to end up linking or joining words together to flow smoothly. This is very similar to when you’re speaking Chinese in a mood and it seems like you’re saying a long word instead of a full sentence.
What happens to Chinese people when speaking in English, is that they don’t usually use linking effectively. Chinese speakers pause between words instead of blending the sounds together.
There are two common ways of linking in American English: consonant to vowel linking and vowel to vowel linking.
When a word ends with a vowel sound and it’s located next to a word that begins with a vowel sound, what we do is add a /w/ or a /y/ sound to link the words together. for example, when saying “Who is it” we must say “who-wi-zit” to follow the natural English rhythm. Here are some other examples:
- I am = I-yam
- Do it= Doo-wit
- Too early= Too-werly
When a word that ends in a consonant is next to a word that begins in a vowel sound, what we do is to “hold” the sound of the consonant of the first word:
- Wake up= Way-kup
- Likes it= Like-zit
- Explain it= Explay-nit
Common Sound Mispronunciations
Here are some specific pronunciation mistakes made by Chinese speakers:
“Ih” Sounds Like “ee”
As both of these sounds are made with the front of the tongue, it is a little bit complicated to find the differences between them. That’s why when you say “pill” it sounds more like “pee-ou”.
This means that the tongue ends very high in your mouth and the sides of your tongue are pressing on your upper side teeth. Try relaxing your mouth. Your lips should be flat and your tongue must be raised halfway up inside your mouth.
“L” Sounds Like “oh” at the Ends of Some Words
You’re probably pronouncing the “L” sound correctly if it’s located at the beginning and in the middle of the words, what happens when it is located at the end of the word?
Most Chinese people round their lips when pronouncing the “L” sound. This sound doesn’t exist by itself in the pinyin chart and is accompanied by an “e” when said in Chinese, but in English, the “L” sound is formed by keeping the lips flat and putting the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth. Practice saying the following words with this tongue position: camel, pill, bill, appel, vowel, basil, cruel.
“R” Sounds Like “L”
I know that this one might seem a little bit complicated to achieve. The “R” and the “L” sounds belong to the same consonant family. The American “R” is very different from the Chinese “R”. Most Chinese people make this sound by raising the tip of their tongue in a way that it touches the roof of the mouth. Another common mistake is to curl the tongue back against the roof of the mouth.
You need to change the way of positioning your lips and tongue, and instead of keeping the lips flat, you’re going to make a circle with your lips and let the middle of your tongue flow with the letter “R”. You can practice this until the word “red” stops sounding like “led”. Pushing your tongue against the bottom teeth can help you NOT use your tongue to make the R sound.
The “Th” sound is one of the most common sounds in English, as you can find it in many words in English such as “Other, “the”, “this”, and “that”. Funnily, this is one of the sounds that are more confusing for Chinese people as this sound doesn’t exist in their language. Most Chinese speakers replace it with an S or a Z instead.
There are two different TH sounds; voiced and unvoiced. For the correct TH sound, you need to stick your tongue in between your teeth, as if you’re about to bite it, keep it there and let out a little bit of air. If you notice, this is the unvoiced sound that we make in words like “think” or “teeth”.
For the voiced TH sound, use the same placement as with the unvoiced, but, this time try making a sound until your vocal cords vibrate. You can practice with words like “The” or “this”.
“NG” Sound Instead of “N”
Chinese speakers are most likely to replace the sound “N” at the end of English words with “NG”, especially speakers from Northern China. If you end up saying things such as “wingdow” or “sung” you can easily fix this by saying the NG sound normally, but then bringing the tongue up and forward so the tip touches behind the front teeth.
This might be a little complicated at the very beginning but eventually, you’re gonna get used to it as your tongue will learn to loosen up. Use the words: fan, sun, education, motion, aquarium, and chicken for more practice.
Not Saying Final Consonants or Adding a Vowel at the End
Most Chinese speakers usually drop the final consonant of a word, this happens because final consonants might feel a little bit awkward as most syllables in Chinese normally end in vowels.
On the other hand, and for the same reason for dropping consonants, it’s very common that if the word ends in P, D, B, K, and T, you might add a vowel at the end of the word. So words like “far” and “cab” usually end up sounding like “fa-uh” and “cab-uh.”
What you can do is to choose a word where you make this mistake, and focus on pronouncing only the last two letters. If you’re adding a vowel, as in “cab-uh” try to freeze your mouth right at the “B” sound. And if you’re saying “Ca” instead of “cab” you can try saying the last two letters until you’re used to pronouncing the whole thing.
Try saying the following words for more practice with English pronunciation: black, pulled, what, far, and glass.
What happens now?
Well, as said before, correcting an accent is not an easy thing to do – as this requires lots of patience and muscle training. Don’t worry if you’re having a little bit of trouble at the very beginning and remember that practicing is key. Don’t forget that having an accent is as ok as trying to fix it.
For some other kinds of practice, you can listen to your favorite music and repeat what you hear and correct yourself by using these tips, or repeat the dialogues while watching your favorite show or listening to a podcast. The important thing is that you keep practicing until you feel comfortable speaking in English.
I’m sure that these tips, along with some practice, will allow you to improve in no time. If you’re interested in an American English accent coach, you can check out ours. Save 20% off of your first month of classes with code TF20!