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Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Chinese Immigrants Struggle with English Fluency

I recently came across an interesting article in the Toronto Star that I think many of you might enjoy.

 As you can see by the title, the article focuses on a problem that is probably not just limited to Canada, but likely exists in other English speaking countries such as the England, Ireland, Scotland, the United States. Australia, New Zealand and others.  

The article has generated a lot of interest and a lot of comments, so I am posting the complete article so that you can read the whole thing before I add some of my own comments in a separate post. 

I suggest that you read the entire article, the links it sends you to, AND as many of the comments as you can so that you can get an idea of what other people think. It might provide you with some insight into what native speakers expect from you 

Why Chinese Immigrants Struggle with English Fluency 
Nicholas Keung
The Star Immigration Reporter

   Mandarin-speaking Zhenyong Li, who came to Canada in 1998, said he 
finds small talk in English more difficult than his engineering jargon.

  Zhenyong Li has no trouble speaking English in his engineering jargon, but the Chinese immigrant says it can still be challenging to carry on small talk.

And yet, casual conversation with native speakers around the water cooler is crucial to language development — and social integration — for those whose mother tongue is something else, especially Mandarin.

A new study found the Mandarin-speaking immigrants it tracked had made “no significant progress” in their English accent, fluency and comprehensibility seven years after their arrival here, compared with their Slavic-language (Russian and Ukrainian) speaking counterparts.

The study by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy followed 25 immigrants each from Mandarin and Slavic groups, and assessed their listening and speaking skills at years 1, 2 and 7.
“Mandarin-speakers over time did not get much easier to understand when native listeners heard them speak,” said University of Alberta educational psychology professor Tracey Derwing, who co-authored the study with NorQuest College language instructor Erin Waugh.

Make Little Progress 

“They made very little progress in their pronunciation and fluency. They still had many pauses and hesitation.”
Participants in the study — all possessing the same overall language proficiency, well-educated and with similar language training here — were shown pictures and asked to describe them in their own words, while being evaluated by 30 listeners to eliminate any bias or subjectivity.

Researchers also found the Mandarin speakers had had significantly fewer conversations of 10 minutes or more with native and non-native English speakers than did the Slavic participants.

The Mandarin speakers were, as a whole, more reluctant to initiate conversation and appeared to be less aware of current local events than the Slavic speakers.

The Slavic speakers, as a group, the report said, were more assertive and more deliberate in their effort to learn English. They also had an advantage because of interests shared with the larger community (ice hockey, for example), which helped with conversations.

Li, who came here from Shanghai in 1998, said Mainland Chinese learn their English from
textbooks through reading and writing, and have no opportunity to drill their listening and speaking skills outside the classroom.

“If you cannot listen or speak proper English, you feel discouraged to participate in a conversation because you are afraid others don’t understand you,” said Li, 52, who has a master’s degree in engineering  from the California Institute of Technology and is a manager of a Markham consulting firm.

The Chinese Professionals Association of Canada in Toronto has introduced several programs to address the language gap, which focus on pronunciation and “soft skills” in communication.

“It’s vital to be able to carry small talk,” said its president, Hugh Zhao, who moved here from Shenyang in 1989. “Small talk leads to common understanding and other big topics. It’s not enough just to talk about the weather in Canada.”

Zhao, a computing manager at the University of Toronto, said the Chinese language is very different from the English alphabet, and so are the cultures attached to those language.
Also, silence, which for the Chinese is a virtue reflecting humbleness, is not valued in the West, where people tend to appreciate participation and outspokenness.

Not Active in Class 

“(Mainland) Chinese students are not active in class because, if they understand it, they don’t want to show off. And if they do not understand something, they don’t want to ask and show their ignorance,” Zhao said.

“Sometimes, people are just afraid to make mistakes and decide not to speak. We have to learn not to be afraid to embarrass and humiliate ourselves.”
Derwing said English-language training for immigrants must focus more on listening, speaking and pronunciation skills, as well as the so-called soft skill of engaging in casual conversation.

“Communication is a two-way street. The burden of communication should not be on immigrants’ shoulders only,” she added. “Canadians should not just zone out or shut down when they hear somebody speak with an accent.”

 Here are three of the first comments on the article:  

Cold Hard Truth
"...... Ms. Derwing Tracey Derwing paints a pretty cold picture of Canadians with her closing comments, which border the gratuitous. Given that the average "Joe" doesn't understand the finer points of culture models and the significant differences between Canadian and Chinese cultures, I'd say the people responsible for teaching English to (albeit desiring) immigrants are doing pretty well. It's up to the immigrating parties (Chinese in this case) to adapt to the culture they've joined, screw up their courage, put their narcisism  to rest, and just open their mouths so they can learn while talking, just as we do when we're children and learning English as our first language. After all, the immigrants chose to come: the lion's share of the burden ought to be theirs. If they feel ill-done-by, they know where the nearest airport is.

Lingo Steve 
Not surprised. As someone who speaks 11 languages, including Mandarin, and knows many Mandarin speakers here in Vancouver, i would say the main reason Mandarin speaking immigrants don't do well in English is that they are not very interested. I have, however, met motivated Mandarin speakers, who chose to immerse themselves in the local scene, interact with locals etc. and they learned to speak very well. Poor success in language learning is almost always because of the attitude of the learner."  

Rex Saigon 
SFH makes a great point: too often the language spoken at these CPAC ( Chinese Professional Association of Canada) is MANDARIN!!    NON-CHINESE should be the ones looking at volunteering to lead informal discussion groups — strictly in English — for Mandarin speakers (or any others!) who TRULY want to learn OUR country's native tongue. Such classes might not be for absolute beginners, but those with a rudimentary understanding looking to enhance casual communication skills. Having fellow Mandarin-speakers teach such classes is theoretically fine, so long as those teaching are ABSOLUTELY FLUENT in English, something I find far more likely among Cantonese speakers than Mandarin speakers in Canada at this point in time. Perhaps classes led my people fully fluent (meaning NO accent) in English are already provided, but I have to wonder, especially considering the culture's tendency toward like leading like.

Let me know what YOU think AFTER you have read the article and some of the comments. 

Here are some of the questions I would love to get your answers to: 

1.   Do  YOU agree with the results of the study? Why or why not?
2.   Do you agree with the reasons given for the problem? Why or why not ?  

3.   What is your reaction to some of the comments to the story? Do you agree or 
      disagree with them?  Why or why not:? 

4    Are you surprised about some of the comments? 

4.   What are some possible solutions to this problem? 

5.   Is it necessary for Chinese speakers to take steps, or is it all their teachers' fault? 

6.   Canadians and Canadian employers clearly think "soft " skills are important. What 
     is your opinion? 

7.    Do YOU think these "soft skills" are important, or should employers hire you even 
       if you don't have them? 


  1. I agree with the results of the study and most comments followed up. They all point out the various particular reasons from Chinese immigrants case their English speaking problems. One more thing I would pint out that the Chinese new comers might lack or fear sort of 'mental challenge'. One not exactly suitable example is if we felt something wrong might related ours health, a first thing coming to our mind was food. "What do I get to eat?" or "What can the thing, that is taken, can solve the problem?" We were just lazy to try physically working out. Sometime, only taking a cold water showing could solve the problem. I sadly don't do it, too. :(

  2. Thank you for your comments. I hope you got something out of the article. Do you personally see any solutions for these problems? Can you make any recommendations of what people should do?

  3. Does the ACCENT really matter? What I'm wondering is when one can understand what others want to say, who cares about what accent they posses? If non-English speakers can express themselves clearly and make themselves well understood in English, why should we emphasize on the so-called accurate pronunciation instead of their bountiful culture behind those 'exotic' accents? Also, perhaps those seemingly reluctant to participate in conversations are not simply unwilling to join in; instead ,if we can show more hospitality to them, they will be more courageous to use the language they are not that familiar with.Therefore, while the immigrants do effort to immerse themselves in the foreign society, why not being more patient and less indifferent to them.After all, learning to embracing people from different cultures is the duty of any global citizen, isn't it?

  4. Clara,
    What as great comment! I couldn't agree with you more. In Vancouver as in other big cities around the world almost everybody has an accent of one kind or another. As you said,the only thing that is important is that we are able to understand each other.
    I definitely think Canadians, Americans, the British, Australians and New Zealanders as well as any other English speaking people from different countries should make a bigger effort to communicate with newcomers.
    Unfortunately, this is not a "natural" cultural behaviour for most English speakers. They tend to expect YOU the newcomer to make the first move. As a result, we have a situation where no one makes a move and everyone loses out.
    I wish more immigrants would write letters to editors in English speaking newspapers to make the exact point you make. It might help to wake people up.


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