Teaching English as a Foreign Language, like any teaching experience, is part art and part science. While there are best practices that can transcend the experience, getting to know which approaches are best for your students requires an intimate knowledge not just of your students themselves but of your host country’s culture and customs. There may be behavior management techniques that work better in different parts of the world, and knowing the specific differences between English and your students’ language can help teachers anticipate difficulties, empathize with challenges and devise successful strategies.
It is toward that end that we offer a curated a list of differences between Mandarin and English for teachers abroad. Thanks to BGL’s Teacher Jill and Teacher Nate for the assistance in writing this post.
Grammar & Syntax (for more info see here)
– there are no tenses in Chinese (instead time is told mostly from context but also through modifying words added to the ends of sentences), so verb conjugation can be tricky. With lower level students, in the beginning you may want to try to speak to them using as few tenses as possible and as many infinitives as possible.
– Along these same lines, many words function simultaneously as all parts of speech for that word (for example, the noun, adjective, and verb versions) whereas in English we would have different suffixes that denote the form of the word.
– Chinese uses the same word for he/she/him/her (ta, first tone) so students may often confuse these terms often.
– Also, if more than one person is mentioned they are most often mentioned together (for example, “He and I went to the store” versus “I went to the store with him” –> the first one is more familiar for Chinese speakers).
– In Chinese sentence structure, time comes toward the beginning of the sentence either directly before or after the subject. After time and subject comes location (if applicable), the verb, and then the noun. For example:
Sentence: 我昨天去電影院看電影. In English, we would say “Yesterday, I went to the cinema to see a movie.” In Chinese, it’s similar but a little different: “I yesterday go cinema see movie.”
我 = I (subject)
昨天 = yesterday (time)
去 = go (verb)
電影院 = cinema (location)
看 = see (verb)
電影 = movie (object)
– There are tones in Chinese (four or five of them, depending how you count), which means that words that sound the same to English speakers are actually different words because of what we would call the inflection of the word (or, to put it another way, the way in which you pronounce the vowel within the word). This has a lot of effects for how Chinese speakers learn English:
- Firstly, it’s critical especially in younger grades to stress the vowel sounds of given words and teach students how to make the sounds correctly.
- Also, when you introduce a new word to students they will often repeat the exact inflection with which you pronounced the word because, in Chinese, they need to repeat the tones exactly to get the word right.
- And, the second and third tones go up at the end the same way that we, in English, might go up at the end of a sentence to denote a question, which is another difference to be aware of and/or teach to your students.
– Almost all phonemes in Chinese end in a vowel, so students might have a hard time pronouncing the ends of words that end in a consonant. They also may add an extra “uh” sound at the end of a word that ends in a consonant so as to make it sound more like a Chinese word.
– R’s and L’s may be difficult because the Chinese R sound is a combination of an R and an L in English. To make the Chinese R sound, you place your tongue where you would if you were making an L sound but then attempt to make the English R sound (try it!). So, to make the L sound students will need to open the mouth, place the tongue where they would for the Chinese R sound but then push air out and move the tongue down without moving the lower jaw. To make the English R sound, they will need to make the Chinese R sound but move their tongue from the roof of their mouth to the empty space between the upper and lower jaw.
– Students may also have a difficult time differentiating between short e’s and long a’s, between long e’s and short i’s, and between soft TH and F’s/S’s. As native English speakers, we can show students how to shape their mouth/tongue in order to make the sounds correctly.
– Chinese uses a different set of punctuation marks than we do in English, so this element may be challenging especially to young students.
– Common errors include:
- confusion between comma & period to end a sentence
- lack of capital letters to start a sentence (there is no equivalent in Chinese)
- starting new sentences of the same paragraph on a new line
– Taiwan uses traditional Chinese print as opposed to the simplified print that is used in China (and was introduced to increase literacy rates in the 1950s and 60s). It is actually illegal to teach simplified print in Taiwan, so if you are providing written translations to your students be careful to make sure it is traditional print.
– As an interesting note, Chinese language dictionaries are organized by stroke count, or the number of strokes it takes to create a given character (there also is a prescribed order in which each stroke should be made to create any given character). Within a given stroke count, words are then organized by radicals, or what we might think of as a “root word” (although the root exists usually only in print, not in the sound that is made for the word). There are about 200 Chinese radicals that are among the first pieces of writing that students learn. Speaking of learning to write, Taiwanese students generally do not learn how to write Chinese until they are in about second grade.
– There is a separate written language in Taiwan referred to as “bopomofo” that is used to teach the phonetics of each Chinese character or word. It is not used in normal writing, just to break down the phonetics of Chinese words, mostly in elementary school but also as a digital input tool. There are 37 characters, each with their corresponding sounds.
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