Are you a native Mandarin speaker who:
- struggles with pronouncing the dark L consonant in words like little, table, and pull?
- has difficulty speaking English fluently because it's challenging to connect syllables and words together?
- is confused about the correct intonation patterns to use when speaking English?
American English Pronunciation for Mandarin Speakers: Top 5 Pronunciation Challenges
If you are a native speaker of Mandarin or Chinese and you struggle with American English pronunciation, then this resource is for you. Here you’ll learn 5 of the most common pronunciation challenges that native speakers of Mandarin or Chinese experience when speaking English, and you’ll learn how to improve your pronunciation of American English.
Read about the top 5 pronunciation areas below, and then watch the free English pronunciation video lessons to learn how to pronounce each sound. Don’t forget to click here to download your free Guidebook to the Sounds of American English, too!
Mandarin Challenge #1: Intonation
Mandarin is a tonal language, and changing the pitch (or intonation) of one’s voice is part of the pronunciation. In Mandarin, a change in pitch or tone indicates a different word. In spoken American English, intonation is also used to convey meaning; however, the rules of intonation are quite different.
Native Mandarin speakers tend to increase the volume of stressed syllables and words, but otherwise give equal value to each word in terms of pitch (all syllables are said on relatively the same pitch) and duration (all syllables are said with the same amount of length). To a native speaker of American English, this type of speaking pattern sounds like each syllable has equal stress and importance, and this can make it challenging for a native speaker to fully understand the intended message.
Intonation changes in English are very important to the overall meaning of a word or sentence. Just simply raising the pitch of the voice at the end of a statement can turn that statement into a question. Raising the pitch of the voice even more can turn that statement into one that conveys extreme surprise, doubt, or annoyance.
Changes in intonation are also one of the primary ways that a speaker conveys syllable stress. Stressed syllables are typically said at a higher pitch than unstressed syllables, and this change in pitch helps the listener to parse out which words are important (the stressed words) and which words are less important (the unstressed words).
How to Pronounce American English Intonation
To learn more about American English intonation patterns, watch the videos below. Or you can read about American English intonation by clicking here: American English Intonation of Statements and Questions; Sound Natural and Native with Intonation Templates; 3 Powerful Techniques to Boost your Intonation.
Mandarin Challenge #3: The Dark L
When the L consonant is at the end of a word or syllable, like in the words pull, table, and little, the L is called a dark L, and it is articulated differently than the L that comes at the beginning of a word or syllable. This type of L is called a light L.
The dark L is difficult for most non-native speakers of English, but it is especially challenging for native speakers of Mandarin because Mandarin does not contain this sound in the final position of words or syllables. It’s common for native speakers of Mandarin to pronounce the dark L closer to the OH /oʊ/ diphthong, so a word like table sounds closer to “tay-bow”. To a native speaker of American English, this speaking pattern sounds like no L was pronounced, and this can create confusion for the listener.
How to Pronounce the Dark L in American English
The key to pronouncing the dark L is in the tongue position. The tongue narrows, pulls back and down, and there should be some amount of tension in the back of the throat. The tongue tip is typically down, but it can sometimes come up to the roof of the mouth depending on the word and context. To learn how to pronounce the dark L in American English, you can watch the videos below. Or you can read about the pronunciation of the dark L by clicking here: How to Pronounce the L /l/ Consonant; Your #1 Go-To Guide to the Dark L.
Mandarin Challenge #4: Rhythm and Reductions
Spoken American English has a rhythm to it. Some syllables are pronounced for a longer duration (the stressed syllables) and some syllables are pronounced for a shorter duration (the unstressed syllables). There’s always a contrast between long syllables and short syllables in spoken English. This gives English its unique rhythm and flow, which may sound something like, “DA-da-da-da DA-da-DA, da-DA-da.”
Native speakers of Mandarin tend to place equal stress on syllables, and this creates a rhythm that sounds like “DA-DA-DA-DA,” with every syllable receiving an equal amount of stress and duration. However, the rhythm of spoken English is very different.
For example, the word banana has three syllables, and the first and last syllables are unstressed. This means those syllables are spoken at a lower pitch and volume and are said a little bit faster than the middle, stressed syllable. The rhythm of the word banana should sound like this: “da-DA-da”, ba-NAN-a.
Since the first and last syllables are unstressed, the vowel in these syllables is the schwa /ə/ vowel, and this is the vowel that most unstressed syllables will reduce to in spoken English.
Vowel reductions are so important in American English. They give your spoken English the correct rhythm and flow, and they help you to sound much more natural to a native speaker.
But it’s not enough to pronounce the correct schwa vowel in the unstressed syllable; that syllable also has to be short. And this is where most Mandarin speakers have difficulty - with pronouncing unstressed syllables quickly. Instead, Mandarin speakers might pronounce every syllable with the same duration, BA-NA-NA, instead of ba-NAN-a.
How to Pronounce Rhythm and Reductions in American English
To improve the rhythm of your speech, focus on pronouncing unstressed syllables at a low pitch and for a short duration. If the syllable is also reduced (meaning, it’s pronounced with the schwa /ə/ vowel), you’ll want to say that syllable for an even shorter duration. So to sound more like a native speaker, focus on vowel reductions and pronouncing the reduced syllables as short as possible.
Watch the pronunciation videos below to learn more about how to improve your rhythm, reductions, and pronunciation of the schwa /ə/ vowel. You can also read about their pronunciation by clicking here: Unstressed Syllables and Word Reductions; Rhythm in Sentences; How to Pronounce the Schwa /ə/ Vowel.
Mandarin Challenge #5: Front Vowels
American English contains several vowel sounds that don’t exist in Mandarin, and therefore, it may be challenging for Mandarin speakers to pronounce these vowels correctly. For example, native speakers of Mandarin may pronounce the words mate /meɪt/, met /mɛt/, and mat /mæt/ with the same vowel, so that they all sound like met /mɛt/. However, in English, these three words are pronounced with different, distinct vowels.
It’s common for native speakers of Mandarin to pronounce words that contain the AA /æ/ vowel with a jaw position that is too closed or the lips aren’t retracted enough, and this results in the EH /ɛ/ vowel being pronounced instead. This type of pronunciation pattern results in the word mat sounding like met.
The AY /eɪ/ vowel is a diphthong vowel, and it is made up of two sounds /e/ and /ɪ/. Native speakers of Mandarin tend to pronounce just the first half of this diphthong, and they may do so with a jaw position that is open too wide, resulting in /ɛ/. This type of pronunciation pattern results in the word mate sounding like met.
How to Pronounce Front Vowels in American English
To improve your pronunciation of these front vowels of American English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the AY /eɪ/ Diphthong; How to Pronounce the EH /ɛ/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the AA /æ/ Vowel.