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Issues of English Learning for Chinese-Speaking Children

Wooden toy blocks with Chinese characters

It is helpful for parents to know some of the major differences between English and Chinese dialects. If your child is learning English as a second language, knowing the differences between Chinese and English can help explain his/her language patterns in English. When you are familiar with common errors that second language learners make, it can help you distinguish language learning that is typical or atypical. The following are some errors in English that are common to children who speak a Chinese dialect as their primary language.

Time is expressed differently in English and Chinese

English uses verb endings like "-ing" and "-ed" and words like "will" and "did" to express time, which is also known as tense. Chinese does not have these word endings, so it's not uncommon for Chinese speakers to make tense errors or leave out tenses when speaking English. For example:

  • Saying "Yesterday, he go home." instead of "Yesterday, he went home."
  • Saying "We eat later." instead of "We will eat later."


Chinese does not have articles, like "a" and "the"

English uses articles in front of nouns. The phrase "a book," for example, tells you that there is only one book. And the phrase "the book," tells you about a specific book. Chinese speakers often omit articles. For example:

  • Saying "Apple is good." instead of "The apple is good."
  • Saying "I want book." instead of "I want the book."


Chinese does not have gender-specific pronouns

English makes gender distinctions in pronouns. "He" is used to refer to males and "she" is used with females. Chinese uses one pronoun to refer to both. It is not unusual for Chinese-speakers to make mistakes between the two pronouns.


Chinese does not use the "-s" word ending for plurals

In English, nouns that are of more than one quantity often require a plural "-s" ending. Chinese uses only the context of the sentence to convey the number, or the number is said. Chinese speakers often omit plural endings when speaking English. For example:

  • Saying "I have three dog at home." instead of "I have three dogs at home."
  • Saying "Eat some cookie. instead of "Eat some cookies."

The sounds are different in English and Chinese

There are speech sounds in Chinese that don't exist in English and vice versa. There are some sounds and sound combinations that are difficult for Chinese-speakers to produce in English. For example:

  • Chinese speakers often add a vowel to words that end in a consonant or in between two consonants (e.g., pronouncing "bag" as "bag-uh" or "fly" as "fu-ly").
  • Saying "i" and "ee" the say way (e.g., pronouncing "bit" as "beet").
  • Substituting "th" with a similar sounds, like "s," "t," or "f" (e.g., pronouncing "thank you" as "sank you").

These and many other patterns are expected for children learning English when their first language is Chinese. They should not be interpreted as signs of language disorder. When children learn two languages, the languages influence each other. That's ok! Remember, you can strengthen skills in one language and expect those skills to carry over in the other language. For example, if your child develops strong reading skills in Chinese, it will also help him/her with reading in English too!

Some of the content above are taken from Manfred Wu Man FatPhilip Guo and A Guide To Learning English.


Resources for Chinese-Speaking Families to Help Children Learn English and Develop Literacy Skills


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