EFL for Chinese learners

Today at work I did some research online as part of my task to develop a pronunciation program to benefit the Chinese teachers in my company. I found some good stuff (this page being exactly what I was looking for, though I don’t find it 100% accurate), but perhaps the most interesting was a paper entitled Explicit Instruction in the Communicative Method: Pedagogical Approaches for Successfully Teaching the Sound System of a Second Language by Erika Hoyt.

The paper was written in 2001 and doesn’t cover anything especially new or revolutionary, but it was helpful in that it referenced specific issues for Chinese and Spanish speakers, two groups with which I am particularly familiar. Also, jargon is kept to a minimum, so if you have any interest at all in the wonderful world of drudgery we lovingly call “linguistics” you should be able to get through it without much trouble at all. And if you’re a EFL teacher, there’s a good chance you’ll learn something useful.

I just want to highlight a few of the issues I could relate to most.

On Requisites for Successfully Learning a Foreign Language

  • a positive and active approach to learning the target language
  • an outgoing and tolerant approach to the language and its native speakers
  • continual experimentation with and revising their Interlanguage of the target language
  • the willingness to use the target language in ‘real communication’
  • the ability to think in the second language (L2) as a different system from their first language (L1)

Having lived in China for a while, I’ve come into contact with quite a few long-term foreign residents with varying degrees of Chinese ability, ranging from extremely fluent to practically zero. Looking at the above list, I can think of various cases (of other people as well as my own learning experiences) in which progress is so incredibly limited by just one specific item. And it’s different ones for different people.

The last item came as a slight surprise, but upon a little reflection I could think of examples of that too.

On Rhythm and Stress

> Another example of L2 sound perception involves Chinese speaking ESL students who do not use any rhythmic stress in their English speech because they are transferring from their native language. Their lack of stress results in unnatural, abrupt speech and lexical confusion; syllable stress plays an essential communicative role in distinguishing between “terRIfic” and “TERrify” or the questions “What’s in the desert?” and “What’s in the dessert?” (Chen, Fan & Lin, 1996, p. 5)….

In their article about acquiring English stress, English language researchers Chi-fen Chen, Chuen-Yn Fan and Hsian-Pao Lin write that native Chinese speakers remain unaware of the difference in Chinese and English stress until they are explicitly told (Chen et al, 1996, p. 4)….

Students learning English who speak a native language with an even stress pattern, such as Chinese, benefit from contrasting stressed and unstressed sounds. One way to highlight English stress rules is to outline the qualities of a stressed unit of sound — loud, long vowel, full clarity and higher pitched — and unstressed sound — quiet, short, reduced vowel clarity and lower pitched (Chen et al, 1996, p.7). The teacher could make a chart and/or give an aural explanation of the different qualities. After understanding the difference between stressed and unstressed sounds, the students will be able to identify stress patterns. Chen suggests that students pair up and play a stress game.

The problem of rhythm and stress is one I noticed way back in 1998 when I first started tutoring a Chinese grad student (who would eventually nudge me toward Hangzhou), and one I’m still seeing at my current job. It’s something I have to attach special importance to at work, and I suspect it’s something that EFL teachers across Chinese would do well to incorporate into their lesson plans. I think it’s often neglected.

On Outside Sources for Language Learning

> Using many different sources of language input will help the students’ register flexibility in listening comprehension. Students need to know that target language has many different speakers and pronunciations beyond the way that the teacher speaks. Also, integrating different speakers of the language into the students’ learning experience will help the learners to develop an outgoing approach towards the native speakers of the language, which is one of the characteristics of successful language students.

This is so very true. My best students in China were frequently big fans of music, movies, or TV in English, and they do things like getting part-time jobs using English and writing in English blogs.

Anyway, the paper has a variety of other good stuff too. I give it points for including the “McGurk Effect” because it’s my favorite linguistic term. (Hey, it’s really cool, and it sounds funny!)

It would be great if more EFL teachers in China (外教) actually cared about their teaching. And for those that do, but don’t have the relevant educational background, it would be great if they would learn a little about linguistics. But maybe that’s asking for too much…

Related: Sinosplice’s Teaching Guide.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. GrameWang Says: April 8, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    Great article! As a native Chinese it is quite hard to pronounce “th” 🙁
    But once you get used to it, it will be better._
    “Thrill” “think” ….need more practice though.

  2. Unfortunately, in that last paragraph you are asking too much. So long as there’s such a phenomenal demand for English teachers and such a lack of effort put into getting good teachers, we’re just going to have to put up with the losers. And still try and do a good job, anyway….

  3. I agree, this is an excellent article. I will probably use this article in an essay that I am writing on motivation in the classroom as the bullet points you copied almost perfectly summarize what I want to say.

    BTW, I just recently started an ESL-EFL blog ring, if you are interested drop by http://blinger.org/blinger/web-ring/ringmaker.php


  4. Chinese students don’t give a flying fuck about linguistics and I don’t have much interest either. So how does me ignoring this detract from me being a good teacher?

  5. The pay isn’t there for the majority to care – when the demand is so high, it isn’t a calling but an “alternative experience” that “anyone” can do.

  6. Carl, the more you understand about language learning and language teaching, the better the job you can do, regardless of what your students think about what you read on the internet. Also, a greater understanding of the difficulties your students face in learning English, the better you can pitch your classes at them and their difficulties, allowing them to overcome those difficulties more quickly and more easily.

    Ben, you have a good point, but I think we’ve come to a very sad point when our motives are purely mercenary. Also, I’ve got no beef with the ‘alternative experience’, but if you sign up to spend a year teaching English, you do the best job you can, regardless of the pay rate or your motives for being here. Why? Because you made that agreement, so live up to it. Otherwise, you don’t count for much in my eyes.

  7. but a year is a drop in the ocean in learning to be a teacher – moaning about mercenarism (is that a word? If not, I trademark it!) doesn’t change the fact that many, many people I’ve met are just using teaching as a means to the end of exploring other countries, and the teaching itself as a sometime inconvenience each day. I’m not agreeing with this by any means, merely stating my observation of why I think it’s pointless worrying about it too much.

    Makes it easier for the “real” teachers to get the good jobs too…

  8. You’re right Ben. My point is that if you’re going to sign a contract to teach here for however long, you should do the best job you’re capable of, regardless of your motives. So let them use it as an excuse to explore the world- that’s more or less what got me here anyway- but I still expect them to do the work they agreed to do. I just don’t think too much of those who skip classes to take off for a bit of travel, call in sick because they’re hungover, other such childish bullshit. You’re right, though, there’s nothing we can do about it and no sense in losing sleep over it.

    But I can’t help but think we’ve digressed wildly from the original point, and it’s my fault. Sorry.

  9. Hi John,
    I’ve visited your site quite a few times. I’m not sure if I’ve commented before. I’m a 55 yo Aussie female who has taught for over 30 years in Oz and 2 years in China. Currently I’m back teaching in Oz.
    I can’t help but think that a lot of institutes in China are just happy to have a patient, conscientious native speaker who encourages their students to open their mouths and practise oral English.
    I was only ever with the one group for a semester or less. This doesn’t really give you time to do much more than encourage in the classroom itself. For those who befriend you or spend time outside class the assistance is greater.
    Attempting to learn Chinese helps the teacher to relate to the problems that their students are having. It is almost self-evident that any knowledge beyond that helps. The more the better.
    As I see it a bigger hurdle to teaching in China is the lack of information, help and support provided by some FAO and departments.
    The whole experience and effect could be so much better at times.

  10. This really rings a bell with me. I spent a whole day with my language exchange partners practicing words that change stress when they change form or part of speech. For example, “ecoNOmics” has a different stress than “eCOnomist”, and “DEfault” has a different meaning from “deFAULT”.

  11. The first thing I did when I landed in Korea in 1997 was to buy 2 books. One on language pedagogy and another on learning Korean. I have since read about 30 or more books on linguistic theory, classroom practice, and tesol related materials. Every bit of it has been useful to me.

    Not always directly for teaching, but it allows me to understand why some activities work and others do not. Learning theory also provides you with a framework to be able to better understand problems that learners have.

    Teachers who claim that theory has no place in the classroom are sadly misguided and deluding themeselves, probably in order to justify their lack of effort. Teachers who have knowledge are better teachers in general.

    This of course does not mean that all teachers with appropriate traing are good, but in general they will be better. I know that I have improved as my knowledge has increased and I have seen it in my colleagues as well. The ones who only care about their paycheck are usually the whiners and incompetent teachers.

    Education is power and skill.

  12. catherine Says: April 22, 2004 at 7:21 am

    Giving Chinese students a universal phonetic chart is very helpful. Many Chinese-English dictionaries use the universal system. A major obstacle with Chinese students learning English pronunciation is that “L” and “la” thing they do between words. Specific English SOUNDS are not always the problem as is the la la la fillers. Be specific and TELL the student what you observe. Use mirrors and make them aware of the slurring l’s.

  13. Louise Says: May 8, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    Just to change the topic slightly, as there seem to be quite a few teachers with experience in China, I am wondering if some of you have found that their students are quite unmotivated when it comes to learning ESL (or any subject for that matter), particularly secondary students. I believe that some teachers are finding the notion that students in China are generally highly motivated is not the case after all. In fact some suggest that their students seem to have little interest in learning English, and they are lazy and ill-mannered in class. Is this an increasingly common picture?

  14. Roland Steffens Says: June 14, 2004 at 8:41 am

    Pronunciation difficulties of Chinese learners:

    I¡¯m currently teaching a group of Chinese on a student exchange program in Germany. Their English is perfect but the pronunciation atrocious. Can you help with any material?

  15. Betty W. Johnson Says: September 2, 2006 at 2:19 am


    I just found your website! I hope you are still active as most of the blogs are over two years old. I am seriously considering teaching in China in February of 2007 and I am finding very little information to go on. So I was glad to find your website.
    I am also having some trouble downloading the article you mentioned. If there are any books, lessons, advice you could give me about teaching in China, I would surely appreciate anything you could proffer.

    Thank you for your time.

    Betty Johnson

  16. This is for Carl, above:
    I’ll tell you how it detracts, CARL:
    It’s: “How does MY ignoring this detract from MY being a good teacher”?

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