Before beginning this paper, I thought I would write it solely about the acquisition of English by native Chinese speakers, analyzing the common types of mistakes many Chinese speakers made in grammar and pronunciation, and theorize why such mistakes might be common, drawing on previous knowledge from linguistics classes I’ve taken. However, as I reviewed the interviews I had conducted, I realized that there was another interesting observation I could make: that of the effects of the education system of China on Chinese students’ acquisition of English, as well as the effects of their own views about the importance of learning English, and what that might mean about their views of the English-speaking world as a whole. Therefore, I will first briefly discuss my observations of the common mistakes and errors made by my interviewees, and then look more broadly at the second topic.
Although this was meant to be a field project, I was unsuccessful in obtaining permission to go and do my research at one of the English-teaching schools in Beijing. Therefore, this paper will be more focused on interviews I conducted with native speakers, information from scholarly articles, and my own previous knowledge of language acquisition.
It is important to note that when I refer to a “first language” (or L1), I refer to a language learned from birth (or an extremely young age) that is acquired very quickly and in which the speaker is completely fluent, to the point that the language is basically instinctive. It is possible for a person to have more than one first language, if, for example, they were raised in a bi- or multi-lingual community or family, and were equally exposed to multiple languages. “Second language” (or L2) refers to a language learned later
Common Errors and Analysis
For this part of my research, I will be using information from a few interviews with native Chinese speakers who had studied English or are currently studying English. Two interviews were conducted in person, and the audio recorded; the other two were done via email. All interviewees were reasonably proficient in English, and the interviews were conducted in English. This meant that I could have direct answers to questions, as well as actual use of English to analyze, with examples of both spoken and written forms. In addition, one interviewee, Aaron Ye, is a native Chinese speaker who has been living in America (Canada and the United States) for several years, and so provides a slightly different perspective on learning English due to his experiences.
In a previous class on language acquisition, I’ve learned that one of the most difficult aspects of a language for foreign students to master is grammar. No matter what age, you can always increase your vocabulary, and work to improve pronunciation, but it’s practically impossible to ever reach the same level of fluency and instinctive judgment in grammar that you have in your first language. However, when I asked my interviewees what aspect of English they felt was most difficult, only one said grammar gave them the most trouble, whereas the others listed pronunciation and vocabulary as their main difficulties. That being said, all four did make some grammatical errors.
Many of the grammatical errors I noticed in my interviews were in small grammatical distinctions that are not universal across all languages. For example, usage of incorrect
prepositions, or misuse of articles. Another common error is failing to pluralize nouns. (This could potentially be an issue of pronunciation rather than grammar, as explained later.) Perhaps the most common error is in using the wrong tense. In fact, many of the tense errors I noticed were mistakes in the simple present and simple past tenses, the same two tenses that Duan Manfu notes in their report, “A Corpus-based Study of the Misuse of Tenses in the English Composition of Chinese College Students.” As Duan hypothesizes, I believe that these are most likely transfer errors, a type of error caused when features of a speaker’s first language carry over into their use of a second language, since they will often use their first language as a sort of “crutch” to help make sense of the second language (Ament). Since Chinese doesn’t have articles, or morphological markings for plurality or tense, Chinese speakers don’t have that “crutch” to help them learn those concepts in English. However, it is possible that some of the plurality and tense mistakes in the spoken interviews could have been pronunciation rather than grammar errors; they would still be classified as transfer errors. In this case, the phonological features of Chinese influenced the pronunciation of the words in English. Since Chinese syllables and words rarely end in consonants, and when they do it is only the single consonant sounds “n” or “ng” (or sometimes “r” in certain dialects), other syllable final consonants, and especially consonant clusters, could be difficult to pronounce. They therefore may have either deleted all syllable final consonants, or reduced the consonant clusters. In this case, they recognized, in their head, that the word should end with a “-s” or a “-ed”, but those endings just didn’t surface in their speech.
Effects of Point of View on Language Acquisition
When one studies a foreign language, there are many factors that may influence the level of proficiency they can reach. In some cases, something as simple as a second language learner’s personal view and opinions of a language and its importance in their own lives may affect how well they are able to learn the language. By extension, the country in which that learner is raised, and the culture of that country, especially its education system, can have a profound influence on their mastery of a second language. By further extension, one may be able to hypothesize a reverse effect: that is, how learning a second language, and how heavily a culture encourages the learning of that language, might reflect that culture’s views of the native speakers of that language.
In studying language acquisition, linguists have come to the conclusion that one’s own views of a language and its usefulness can have an effect on the extent to which they are able to acquire that language. Many learners of a second language will reach a point of “fossilization”, after which their ability in the language cannot progress any further. One possible reason for this fossilization is that, no matter how hard the learner may try, they cannot retain any more information about the language. According to the popular theory, this is because a specific “device” in the language-learning center of the brain, which is used in the acquisition of language, begins to decay as the learner ages, and eventually disappears altogether. However, a second reason for fossilization is that the learner has, consciously or not, decided that they’ve learned enough of the language for their own purposes, and so they have no need to progress any further (Ament). Therefore, a person’s views about a language, and the importance of learning that language, can greatly affect the level of proficiency they are able to reach.
In China, English is a mandatory subject in many schools, starting at increasingly earlier ages. Aaron Ye told me in his interview that he began studying English in 1979 as a required class in college. My other three interviewees, on the other hand, started compulsory English classes in middle school, around the age of twelve, and according to Wang Xiaokai, the start of English classes was further lowered to the third grade by the time his younger sister reached that age. Chinese people also have relatively high exposure to the English language, particularly in larger cities like Beijing, where plenty of signage is written in both Chinese and English, as well as through various foreign media: music, movies, and especially the internet. There are also English portions on most major exams: the 高考 (gāokǎo, literally meaning “high test”), China’s college entrance examination; as well as the GRE and TOEFL exams. And of course, English has become an international language, used in many countries throughout the world.
All this means that English is becoming more and more a necessity of everyday life for Chinese people, and is especially essential for their academic and occupational success. As such, Chinese people view learning English as being very important. When I asked my interviewees if they would have pursued English even if it hadn’t been required in school, they all emphatically replied that yes, of course they would have. Both Wang Xiaokai and Chen Yang, with whom I did spoken interviews, described English as a “tool”, for being able to communicate with people from other cultures, and to learn about those cultures, and also as a tool to be used on exams.
In comparison, American schools do not stress learning any foreign languages as much. As we are fortunate to already speak the modern world’s lingua franca, and we do not have as much contact with foreign languages in our everyday lives, learning a second language is not as much of a necessity. Many schools have begun to institute mandatory Spanish classes, due to the increasingly high number of Spanish speaking people in the United States, especially in the south. But these efforts are small compared to China’s emphasis on English. American students (at least in my school district) only needed three years’ worth of language classes to graduate from high school with an Advanced Studies diploma; so many students took the language they thought would be easiest, and studied for no longer than they needed to in order to earn the necessary credits for graduation. They studied the words and grammar that was taught just enough to pass their tests, but wouldn’t retain much of it. It’s simply not as important, in terms of academics or employment, for American students to learn a foreign language; it might look impressive on a college application or job resume, but it’s not required.
However, China’s academic- and job-centered focus on learning English has its drawbacks, and there are those in China who also learn just enough to get through their exams, but have no interest in continuing to learn English afterward. Chen Yang mentioned that one of the most well-known English schools in Beijing, 新东方 (xīndōngfāng, New Oriental), actually teaches specific techniques for being able to answer exam questions without fully understanding what the question is really asking. And while that can sometimes help with learning vocabulary, or deciphering written Chinese, she says, it doesn’t really help improve her ability to actually speak and use the language fluently.
Finally, I think it might be interesting to note that Chinese views of the English language and English speaking countries also provide additional motivation for mastering the language. Since China has become more open to foreign influences, many English and other Western products, companies, and ideas have permeated the country and its culture. Many Chinese people view the United States and other Western countries as being wealthy, modernized societies, and have done their best to emulate those qualities. As Chen Yang told me in our interview, a product with English words or brand names is seen as being better, more fashionable, more desirable. Because English-speaking countries have been equated with wealth, fashion, and modernism, the English language itself has come to occupy the same elevated position.
Although the majority of those I interviewed did not list grammar as the hardest aspect of English in their opinion, they still made some common grammar mistakes, most likely due to transfer errors dealing with grammatical forms and patterns that don’t exist in their mother tongue. In addition, it is intriguing to examine the differences between Chinese society and education system compared to the United States, in terms of how much importance they place on learning foreign languages, and how that importance affects the number of people who actually continue to become functional in a second language. Finally, it seems worth noting that an additional appeal to learning English in China today is that the English language has become the language of wealth and modernization.
Ament, Erin. “Bilingual Language Acquisition.” Language Acquisition. College of William and Mary. 27 November 2012. Lecture.
Duan, Manfu. “A Corpus-based Study of the Misuse of Tenses in the English Composition of Chinese College Students.” English Language Teaching 4.4 1 Dec. 2011: 173-180. EBSCOhost. Web. 30 Jul. 2013.
Huang, Kelly. Personal Interview. 1 August 2013.
Wang, Xiaokai. Personal Interview. 17 July 2013.
Yang, Chen. Personal Interview. 19 July 2013.
Ye, Aaron. Personal Interview. 1 August 2013.