An investigation into common mistakes made by Chinese EFL students

Diary submitted by Gianina D.

I have a few Chinese friends who, for them, English is not their first language. I wanted to unveil some of the difficulties they had when growing up learning English as a foreign language to help deepen my understanding of that community of EFL learners. I believe that it’s important to gain a global perspective when teaching EFL and to recognise that different countries, regions and communities will all face different problems with language acquisition depending on their native tongue. 

Philip Guo, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, reports some of the “common mistakes that native Chinese speakers make when speaking or writing in English” based on difference “between Chinese and English grammar”. To help me with my investigation, I have summarised his main points below.

  • Gender pronouns: there are no separate gender pronouns in Chinese so when speaking English, learners often use inappropriate gender pronouns. They may also default to male pronouns, for example, “he is an obliging waitress”. 
  • Singular/plural nouns: in the Chinese language, instead of using separate singular and plural forms of nouns, speakers are able to differentiate the number depending on the context, so when speaking English, they may forget to make nouns plural, eg. “he eats four strawberry”.
  • Conjugating verbs and tenses: conjugations don’t exist in Chinese so EFL learners may be perplexed when studying how to conjugate to “match with the corresponding subject” or “to denote tenses”. To differentiate between tenses in Chinese, time phrases are added to provide context. For example, in English we would use the past simple to say “she ate toast” but the Chinese equivalent would be similar to “yesterday I eat toast”.
  • Articles: Chinese speakers sometimes omit articles because there are no articles before nouns in Chinese, and other times they may insert articles when it’s not necessary because they’re aware that they should be using articles but don’t know when it is appropriate to do so.
  • Prepositions: I have met Spanish, Italian, French and Israeli EFL students who have trouble with prepositions but Guo writes that it is particularly hard for Chinese EFL learners to master prepositions because “there isn’t such a strong distinction between different prepositions in the Chinese language”. 
  • Name mistakes: in written and spoken Chinese, surnames are placed before first names, so when it comes to practising English, students can often be known to write or say names in reverse. 

Teaching in Madrid hasn’t given me the opportunity to teach any Chinese students but I have still encountered some of the same mistakes with my Spanish students; for example, gender and preposition confusion, even if they are not for the same cultural reasons. However, this research allows me to reflect on what I might be able to expect if I teach Chinese students in the future and how I might be able to adapt my lesson plans to cater to these students’ culture-specific needs.


Common English mistakes made by native Chinese speakers by Philip Guo – http://www.pgbovine.net/chinese-english-mistakes.htm

An investigation into common mistakes made by Chinese EFL students TEFL Trainer

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