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Effect of Mandarin on spoken English Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2020


English language is one of the most popular languages across the world, spoken in many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, among others. However, it is important to note that the spoken English have a variation, a fact that is always associated with the first language that one speaks before learning English.

It is common to find semantic, phonological, and syntactic differences in the speech of people having different backgrounds when speaking English. In fact Yuwen (74) notes that in some cases, there may be a complete misinterpretation of what one says because of this variation.

This scholar says that some variations are insignificant, and unless one is keen to identify them, it may not be possible to realize that the speech has some phonological variations. On the other hand, some variation can be so pronounced that it becomes difficult to understand what one is talking about.

In some cases, it may force the listener to make guesses based on the context of the speech to develop a meaning because the speaker could be pronouncing a word in a manner that is not close to the intended meaning. This variation is always determined by the stage at which one started learning the language.

A person who is introduced to this language at a tender age of below ten years can easily overcome the effect of the first language on English. One the other hand, if one is exposed to the language in adulthood, this big variation may last forever.

This research seeks to determine the effect of Mandarin native language on spoken English among the native Mandarin speakers who learnt English as a second language when they were above fifteen years of age.


The researcher was interested in finding the effect that the native Mandarin had on English among people who were learning English language for the first time when they were aged fifteen years and above. In this interview, the focus was to find out the similarity in the pattern of speech among people who were native Mandarin speakers. The interview was done on six native Mandarin speakers within this institution of higher learning.

The researcher selected international students who were native Mandarin speakers. It was important to select a sample population with similar background as far as this language was concerned. The six interviewees were aged above 19 years, with the eldest of them being 22 years. The other two interviewees who were native English speakers were also in the same age group.

When determining their profile, all of them were exposed to spoken English when they were more than fifteen years of age. In fact five of the six participants stated that their sole reason of learning English language was to help them advance their careers. In his profile, one of the six participants stated that he had been practicing speech with the help of other native English speakers.

This had a small impact as was witnessed during the interview. The researcher also used two students who were native English speakers to act as control variable. The researcher explained the purpose of the research to them before the start of the process of collecting data. Given the fact that both the researcher and the respondents had limited time, they were not exposed to long speeches that would have consumed a lot of time.

Instead, the researcher used specific words that were already identified by other researchers in literatures available in the literature. The researcher wanted to confirm if it is true that these students could not give the correct phonology of these words as stated in the literatures. The researcher wrote these words and numbered them as follows:

  1. Sheep
  2. Cap
  3. Goose
  4. Snake
  5. Five
  6. Choice
  7. Goat
  8. Knob
  9. Kid
  10. Bag
  11. Band.

The above elevens words were chosen because many researchers have identified them as some of the most conspicuous pronunciation problem for the English speakers of native Mandarin background. According to Yuwen (90), some of these words are always pronounced contrary to their real pronunciation to the extent that their meaning may be lost completely.

These words were written clearly for the participants to read. Each participant was given five minutes for the entire process. They were supposed to read the first to the last word of the list. Upon completion, they were supposed to read them for the second time and for the third time, just to confirm that the phonology given in each of the three sets of reading are consistent.

In cases where the sound was inconsistent or unclear, the participant would be asked to pronounce the same word three times. This way, it was possible to get the real pronunciation that was coming out. Although the researcher wrote down the pronunciation as they came out, the entire process was recorded using a voice recorder for further analysis when the process was over.


The following table shows the pronunciation that was given by the participants and the standard pronunciation that was expected of a Standard English speaker.

Table 1: The Results Obtained

Word Pronunciation Given by Native Mandarin Speakers Pronunciation Given by Native English Speakers
Sheep sh[i]p sh[I]p
Cap c[a]p c[ʌ]p
Goose g[u]s g[ʊ]s
Snake sn[ɛ]k sn[eɪ]k
Five f[a]f f[aɪ]f
Choice ch[ɔə]s ch[ɔɪ]s
Goat g[o]t g[oʊ]t
Knob [p] [b]
Kid ki[t] [d]
Bag ba[k] [g]
Band Ban[t] [d]

It is important to note that there was a consistency in the pronunciation of the above words among the six native Mandarin participants. In the first round of the reading, all the six participants tried to bring out the pronunciation that they thought was closer to the Standard English pronunciation.

However, the more they were told to pronounce the same word again, the more they slide to their native Mandarin affected English. They were more comfortable reading the words in this manner than when they tried to use Standard English. It is also important that all the six participants did not know each other before the interview.

Although they were informed prior, that they would participate in a research, they were never told who other participants in the research were. This was necessary to ensure that there was no any form of collusion amongst them, a fact that would have affected the validity of the results. This means that when they were reading these words, they were absolutely unaware of what other participants had given.

However, it was clear that all of them had a similar phonological problem. In fact, one would think that this is a different language that is very close to English because they were so consistent in pronouncing these words in that manner.

It meant that amongst themselves, they would easily understand one another through that language. However, a native English speaker may fail to know what is being talked about, although the speakers would claim that they are speaking in English.


The above table has the phonemic qualities of the participants who took part in this research. According to Yip (55), there are many cases where communication breaks down completely when two or more people of different native languages try to communicate in English. Each native language has its own phonology that may not necessarily be similar to English phonology.

For instance, the native Mandarin language has six vowels, while in English there are only five. There are other native languages with lesser than five. During early childhood education, a learner is always exposed to these vowels. These are the vowels that one defines such a child’s phonology in his or her later developmental stages, unless he or she is introduced to another set of vowels at early stages.

As the child develops, these phonological structures sinks into the mind, and becomes the basis of learning any other new language, in case this happens. When one is introduced to a new language, the native language will act as the basis of learning. There would be a deliberate attempt to relate this new language to the native language in order to enhance learning.

In fact Yip (78) says that for one to learn a new language, the native language that is already known will play an important role. This is what always takes place when native Mandarin speakers get to learn English language.

Whenever they are exposed to a new vowel sound that is not clearly represented in the native Mandarin language, such a sound would always be twisted in order to fit into the already available vowels. This is always the beginning of the distortion of the language as presented in the table above.

When it is impossible to twist the word a little so that it can fit, then there will be a complete replacement of the word with another word that these native Mandarin speakers associated with that foreign language.

As shown in the table below, the last four words have been given a completely different pronunciation on the last words because of the same effect when dealing with consonants. In order to bring a clear understanding of this phonological variation in the speech, it would be important to understand specific areas where these variations do occur.

According to Wee (38), the native Mandarin phonological structure when speaking English language is heavily affected by the structure of the vowels and consonants in their native language. Although some similarity between the vowels and consonants of English and native Mandarin may compare, there is always a large gap between the two that may give rise to this difference in sound.

In some instances, Phillipson (54) says that this difference can be negligible. However, in cases where the difference is very pronounced, then it will be reflected in the speech.

Although a native Mandarin speaker can spell these words correctly when writing, it always becomes problematic when they are subjected to read these words. The researcher will now analyze specific areas where this variation has always been witnessed in the speech of native Mandarin speakers based on the results that was obtained in this research.


It was mentioned before in this paper that one of the leading causes of the variation in the phonology of a native Mandarin speaker and a native English speaker when pronouncing some English words is as a result of the difference in the vowels in the two languages. In speech, this variation can be analyzed from various fronts.

In this research, the analysis of the variation in the vowel sounds would be restricted to monophthongs and diphthongs. These are discussed below, based on the results obtained from the participants of this research.


Native Mandarin speakers have a problem when pronouncing some English monophthongs because of the effect of the native language. This can be illustrated by analyzing some of the responses obtained from this research project.

Sheep [I] [i]

This word proved to be a big challenge for the participants to pronounce properly. Instead of the sound [I] that was expected, the participant gave the sound [i]. This means that in their speech, it may not be possible to differentiate when one is talking about ship or sheep because both have the same pronunciation.

Unless one knew the context under which this statement was made, a native speaker of English will be left guessing what was meant. This problem is caused by the fact that Mandarin does not have “I” in its vowel system

Dress [ε] [a]

During this research, it was clear that the native Mandarin speakers were unable to pronounce the word properly. Instead of a mid-front lax vowel [ε], the sound that came out was a low central tense vowel [a]. This word was pronounced as [dras] instead of [dr εs].

Goose [u] [ʊ]

The word goose was given a pronunciation that would be very difficult to determine what was meant. The participants were told to read aloud the following sentence as a way of picking out the pronunciation of goose without their knowledge.

The golden goose was stolen by puss in boots.

It was clear that the pronunciation g[u]s was coming out very clearly instead of the expected g[ʊ]s. it was clear at this stage that the participants found it easier to replace the prolonged [ʊ] sound with a shorter [u]. They could not hold their breath long enough for the correct sound to come out.


Native Mandarin speakers also have a problem with English diphthongs. Phillipson (58) says, “English diphthongs have a tendency to become monophthongs for native Mandarin speakers.” This means that they will always try to pronounce diphthongs as though they were monophthongs. This is illustrated in some of the words that were read by the participants during the research.

Snake [] [ɛ]

This word was not coming out clearly in the pronunciation given by the native Mandarin speakers. Instead of the diphthong vowel [] coming out, a low sound of sn[ɛ]k is given. To a native speaker, it would be easy to understand that such a person is talking about sn[]k because the variation is not very big.

Five [] [a]

It was very strange how this word was pronounced among this group of native Mandarin speakers. In order to hide their focus from this specific word, the researcher developed the following sentence in order to determine the way they would pronounce it.

The sick child was taken to room five to be examined by the doctors.

They were told to read this sentence three times so that the correct pronunciation of the word five could be captured properly. It was observed that the native speakers were pronouncing the word as [faiv] instead of f[]f. It is important to note that the diphthong [aɪ] in the sentence has lost its sense of sound in their speech, and in its place they have a monophthong [a] coming out clearly.

Choice [ɔɪ] [ɔə]

The word choice was also pronounced in a peculiar manner by all the six participants in all the three attempts they were given to read the word. Once again after realizing that there was a big problem in pronouncing this word, the researcher developed the following sentence which they read loudly.

Make a choice on which chores you will start addressing now.

The above sentence could not make a clear sense because of the way choice is pronounced. The native Mandarin speakers were unable to pronounce the word as ch[ɔɪ]s, and instead gave the pronunciation of ch[ɔə]s. Although the diphthong is not reduced to monophthong, the central diphthong sound is lost among the native Mandarin speakers.

Goat [oʊ] [o]

The word goat was also proving to be a big challenge to pronounce among the population sampled for this research. Although it was easy to determine what they were talking about when they mentioned the word, it was still easy to know that the word spoken by a non-native speaker. Instead of the sound g[]t coming out, the sound that came out was g[o]t.


Consonants, just like vowels, have posed some problems in the speeches of native Mandarin speakers when pronouncing specific words in English. Maurais (38) says, “Standard Mandarin does not use consonant clusters, thereby creating syllables where consonants are almost always followed by vowels. This can be challenging at times when speaking English when a consonant sound follows another consonant.”

This scholar also observes that it can be challenging for such a person to pronounce specific consonants that come in positions that they expect a vowel. In such cases, they would try to bring in a vowel sound instead. If this is not possible, they would come up with other consonant sounds that at times may be different from the word itself. At times such deviations can be so pronounced that the meaning may be lost completely.

According to Wee (28), such deviation may bring out a meaning of a completely different item. This variation is always witnessed at the initial, medial, or final position of a word. Given the limitation in this research, the variation at the initial and media position of words will not be analyzed in this research. The focus will be on the final position variations as discussed below.

Final Positions

According to Chambers (89), syllables in Standard Mandarin phonology should always end in vowels. This means that when a native Mandarin pronounces a syllable that ends in a consonant, then a problem may arise. This scholar notes that in such instances, the pronunciation can be so clear, or be distorted. The following were some of the examples obtained in this research.

Lob [lɑp]

When pronouncing this word, there was a variation in the manner in which the sound came out from the six participants. While one of the six participants gave a clear English pronunciation of this word in three consecutive attempts, the other five pronounced the word as lɑp in all the three attempts.

Wee (34) associates this to a possible personal attempt to improve one’s pronunciation, especially if such a person stays with the native speakers for a long time, and is determined to make such changes.

Kid [kit]

The word kid was pronounced properly by five of the participants except one who pronounced the word as kit. Once again it worth noting that those who gave the correct pronunciation in the first attempt were consistent in the other two attempts.

The individual who gave the wrong pronunciation was also consistent in maintaining the wrong phonology of the word in the subsequent attempts. However, the other five were able to identify what the other participants meant. This can be attributed to the explanation given by Wee as explained above.

Bag [bak]

The word bag proved to be one of the biggest challenges in this particular research among the participant. All the six participants were given five chances to pronounce the word but in all the five attempts, they all gave the pronunciation of bak. To them, this phonology was okay, but it comes out clearly that they introduce a low sound that is not common among native speakers.

In this case, the participants who stated that he had been practicing the language was able to give the correct pronunciation. This was directly attributed to his effort in learning the language beyond the influence of his native language.

Band [bant]

The last word that was used in this research was band. This was used because of the two consecutive consonants. Once again all the six participants were unable to give the correct pronunciation. Instead, the pronounced the word as bant. In fact five of the six participants were hesitant when pronouncing the word for the first time.


The discussion above has clearly demonstrated that the first language that a person uses may affect the way he speaks the other secondary languages. It is clear that native Mandarin speakers who were exposed to English language at advanced stages of their learning had a number of issues pronouncing some words. Their phonological structure was completely different from that of native English speakers.

There are some English vowels that native Mandarin speakers may not pronounce properly. In some instances, they are forced to introduce vowels that give such words completely different meaning. The variation would depend on how the English vowels vary from their native Mandarin vowels. It was noted that the Mandarin vowels are six, while English vowels are five. This variation is therefore, unavoidable in the speech.

It was also evident that among this population, it was challenging to pronounce two or more consecutive consonants. They would instead develop their own vowels sound or other consonant sound that would combine the two or three consonant sounds. This is because of the phonological structure of the Mandarin language.

It is therefore, a fact that native Mandarin speakers are affected by their first language when constructing certain phonological words in English.

Works Cited

Chambers, Jack. The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.

Maurais, Jacques. Languages in a Globalising World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Wee, Lionel. The Politics of English: South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific. New York: Cengage, 2013. Print.

Yip, Virginia. The Bilingual Child: Early Development and Language Contact. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print. Yuwen, Lai.

Acoustic Realization and Perception of English Lexical Stress by Mandarin. New York: ProQuest. Print.

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