December 6, 2014

Which English letter do Chinese pronounce wrong the most?

The answer to the titled question depends on how much the Chinese has already studied English. If he knows almost nothing about the English language, it's likely he pronounces letter "A" as [ɛ] instead of [eɪ], "C" as [sɛ] instead of [si] (or [si:] if you want to emphasize the long vowel), and "K" as [kɛ] instead of [kei]. Let's ignore these people and focus on those that have learned enough English and have probably been living in an English-speaking country for some time and whose level of English as a second language has fossilized.

In my observation, the most commonly mispronounced English letter is "N". Instead of [ɛn], many Chinese pronounce it like a prolonged [n], missing the vowel [ɛ], or the vowel is too short and weak to be heard. This is particularly evident when he/she spells a word on the phone, where a very clear, distinct pronunciation of each letter is expected, e.g., "His name is Wang, W-A-N-G" (['dabulju:], [eɪ], [n], [dʒi:]). Due to the nasal nature of [n], with the initial vowel [ɛ] stripped off, the other side of the telephone would likely ask "W-A-What-G?" Of course giving an example word solves the problem, such as "N like in Nancy".

Note the IPA symbols for the mispronounced letter "W" in the above example sentence. The first vowel I wrote is [a] and the second [u], while the correct pronunciation of "W" is ['dʌbə(l)ju:] (parentheses for the optional phoneme). Too many Chinese pronounce [ʌ] as [a], because [ʌ] does not exist in Chinese. This substitution also occurs for [ɑ], which again does not exist in Chinese. So letter "R" is read like [ar] instead of [ɑr]. Fortunately, [a] alone does not occur in English; it only exists in diphthongs (e.g. [ai]). Mispronunciation by substitution of it for [ʌ] or [ɑ] won't cause misunderstanding, just a distinctively foreign accent.

I'm not sure why "N" is read by Chinese as [n]. If you know why, I'd like to hear your comments.

Note: The difference between [ʌ] or [ɑ] and [a] is clearly indicated in the International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart. Both vowels not existing in Chinese are pronounced in the back side of the mouth.


enchyisle at December 9, 2014 at 8:56 PM said...

I've heard many Chinese people from the north pronounce "n" like {en} in pinyin (like 恩). Perhaps because [ɛn] looks like it.

But you used [n] for the Chinese pronunciation. I don't know if we are talking about the same phenomenon. For me, [n] sounds more like a front-nasal version of the family name "Ng", or "fish" in Shanghainese.

Yong Huang at December 10, 2014 at 7:04 AM said...

enchyisle, thanks for your comment. Yes, we're talking about the same phenomenon. I agree that my [n] completely removing the vowel is not a very good representation of what's pronounced by them. But in my opinion, neither is [en] a good one. Maybe [en] is better, where the superscript "e" indicates a very short and weak sound of [e]. I'm not very sure about family name "Ng" or "fish" in Shanghainese. Do they have the [ŋ] component in it (like the very last part of "sing")? If so, that's not it.

enchyisle at December 10, 2014 at 5:47 PM said...

Indeed. [en] is not a good representation, either. And different people pronounce the letter slightly different, even if they all have this tendency. Have you encountered people pronouncing it exactly as "恩"? I have, and I found it quite interesting. And about "Ng" and "fish", yes they have the [ŋ] component. That's why I said "the front-nasal version", trying to get rid of that component and just keep the consonant part. But when I came to think about it just now, I realized that [ŋ] is not exactly what we refer to as "the back-nasal sound" in Chinese.... But, anyway, I am from the south. I don't know anything about back-nasal sounds. :D

Yong Huang at December 11, 2014 at 10:35 AM said...

Yes, many Chinese pronounce "N" as "恩" (without tone). I just tried pronouncing this character many times. I think the weak vowel at the beginning of it is articulated between the front and central position, which may be called near-front (refer to the vowel chart). The tongue is not as stiff as [e] or [ə]; it's relaxed. Anyway, the correction should be to move the position toward the front (stick the tongue a little further out and down), open the mouth just a bit more, and articulate it louder and longer.

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