Language Center
The Hong Kong University
of Science and Technology
English Advice Sheets
Common Pronunciation Problems for Putonghua Speakers
P8

The aim of this leaflet

This leaflet provides information on why pronunciation problems may occur and specific sounds in English that Putonghua speakers may have difficulty with.

Why problems occur

Pronunciation problems tend to occur because most people are used to hearing and making sounds, which only exist in their mother tongue.

There are many sounds in Putonghua and English that are similar, some, are only partially similar and others are totally different. When you hear or are trying to say the similar or totally different sounds, it’s easy to make mistakes because you are used to hearing and making sounds in your mother tongue. It is important therefore, to make yourself aware of how these different sounds are made and practice listening to them and saying them as much as possible.

To make language sounds we move our jaw, tongue, lips, and the vocal cords in our throat in a number of different ways. If for example, your brain is not used to telling your tongue to move into a certain position in your mouth in order to make a particular sound, then you may have difficulty saying that sound clearly.

How do you solve the problems?

Here are a few suggestions on how to train your brain:

  1. Learn to recognise that there are differences in the way some English sounds are made compared to Putonghua sounds
  2. Learn to hear clearly and think about how sounds are made when you are listening
  3. Discover how these different sounds are made. Find out for example:
  • how far open your jaw should be
  • whether the tip of your tongue should be touching the inside of your top teeth or whether it should be lying flat
  • if your lips should be ‘rounded’ like when you are going to kiss someone or ‘spread’ like when you smile
  • whether the vocal cords in your throat should be vibrating or not (materials talk about this in terms of ‘voiced’ or; voiceless’ sounds)
  1. Practice moving your jaw, tongue, lips etc. as much as possible so that you are able to make the problematic English sounds clearly.

Many of the materials listed on P3 give explanations and show pictures of where to put your tongue or how to move your lips etc. These materials help you understand how English is spoken and help you practice your English pronunciation. You can find more ideas on how to practice from P1 to P4.

English sounds, which can cause problems for Putonghua speakers
Below is an explanation of which English sounds Putonghua speakers tend to have difficulty pronouncing:

Vowels
As mentioned above, some sounds including a few vowel sounds are the same in Putonghua and English. Some, vowel sounds however are different and can cause problems if pronounced incorrectly. Another reason may be related to not being aware of how to move the jaw, tongue, lips etc. Below is a list of problematic sounds.

Examples:

Consonants (see P5 & P3)
To understand how problems occur with consonant sounds, it’s important to understand how the vocal cords in your throat work. When you say any vowel sound and some consonant sounds your vocal cords should vibrate. Sounds produced this way are known as ‘voiced’ sounds. The consonant sounds that do not cause your vocal cords to vibrate are known as ‘voiceless’ sounds. All vowel sounds are ‘voiced’ so don’t worry, you already know how to do this.

Try feeling how your vocal cords vibrate to make a voiced sound. Place two fingers lightly across your throat. Say one of the vowel sounds listed above. You’ll notice that the vibration of your vocal cords can be felt in your fingers.

Other problems can also occur with some English consonant sounds. Below is a list of sounds that can cause problems.

Examples:

Clusters (See P5 & P3)
Consonant Clusters don’t exist in Putonghua and can therefore cause problems. A common mistake for Putonghua speakers is to leave out some of the consonants in a cluster or to add a vowel sound in between the cluster. This can be dangerous because people may think you are saying a different word altogether. For example:

Other areas to be aware of (see P6 & P3)

  • Word stress
  • Sentence stress
  • Linking

Improving your English pronunciation is not just about understanding and practising the differences between vowel sounds and consonant sounds, it is also very important to be aware of how all the different elements that create speech are put together. Understanding and practising English word stress, sentence stress, linking etc. will help you enormously in hearing connected speech clearly and in being able to speak English with confidence and more fluency.

Note:
This leaflet is part of the Self-Access Pronunciation Advice Sheets supporting independent learning, produced by the HKUST Language Center. This leaflet was written by Sarah Toogood 2000, and edited by Dr Tony Hung of Hong Kong Baptist University. If you copy from this leaflet, please acknowledge the source. Thanks.

©Copyright 2004 Center for Language Education, HKUST. All rights reserved.