Why can’t the people in China speak basic English even though most young people study English at school?

There is no reason to suppose that anyone anywhere can speak English. It isn’t a universal language. By native speakers, English is ranked No.3 after Chinese Mandarin and Spanish. By second language speakers, English is huge and has about 1.1 billion users. However, if you consider that there are 7 billion people in the world, that means, globally, only 1 in 7 people can speak some English. So wherever you go, you will meet people who can’t speak English. There is nothing special about China in that regard.

Of people who have studied English at school, few maintain their skill set. In their working life because they have no actual use for English. If you don’t use a language, then you quickly become rusty and then later your will forget it completely.

For the last couple of decades, China has had English as a compulsory subject in school – from mid primary right through to the end of university. However, prior to that, there were few people who studied English. Thus English teachers have long been in short supply and what few teachers they had, were often substandard.

Many students in China don’t learn the English language as a practical language. They learn the grammar. They learn the vocabulary. They learn to translate English texts into Chinese. Most of all, they learn to pass the English exams. However, they don’t learn to use English as a mode of communication – which really is the definition of a language. The main reason why is as mentioned above, they have no cause to ever use the language. They never meet foreigners, they only read Chinese books and movies or have them translated into Chinese, and they rarely travel abroad.


Are there any letter combinations that have as many different sounds as -ough in English?

As far as I know, the -ough grouping has the biggest pronunciation variation of any group in English.

  • /ʌf/ enough, hough, rough, slough, tough (rhymes with stuff)
  • /ɒf~ɔːf/ cough, trough (rhymes with off)
  • /trɔːθ/ trough (by some speakers of American English rhymes with cloth)
  • /aʊ/ bough, drought, plough (rhymes with cow)
  • /oʊ/ dough, furlough, though (rhymes with toe and know)
  • /ɔː/ bought, brought, ought, sought, thought, wrought (regularly used before /t/, except in drought /draʊt/. rhymes with taught and “sort” in some accents)
  • /uː/ brougham, slough, through (rhymes with true)
  • /ə/ borough, thorough (in BrE rhymes with bra though both words may be pronounced /oʊ/ in American English accents as in ‘toe’)
  • /ʌp/ hiccough (a BrE variant spelling of “hiccup,” though the latter form is recommended in both British and US. Rhymes with cup)
  • /ɒk/ hough (more commonly spelled “hock” from the 20th century onwards and rhymes with stock)
  • /ɒx/ lough (Meaning a lake in Irish English and an analogue of Scots “loch”, it rhymes with loch)

The second closest, but a long way short, is the -omb group:

  • bomb /bɒm/ (rhymes with Tom)
  • comb /koʊm/ (rhymes with home)
  • sombre /ˈsɒmbə/
  • tomb /tuːm/ (rhymes with gloom).

I can’t comment authoritatively on the spellings within all other languages, but the languages I have learned, all tend to have more logical spelling rules than English. The negative side of this simple spelling is that many languages have large numbers of homonyms, making reading harder.

Living in China

Which was the most polluted: modern day Chinese cities or the European cities during the industrial revolution?

A comparison of the Gread Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing's smog circa 2015
A comparison of the Great Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing’s smog circa 2015. Image source: 西安伦敦雾霾对比照_网易新闻.

When you look at these photos you might think that the pollution in China is worse or equal to the pollution of London in the 1950’s, but you would be mistaken. There is a gulf of difference between these photos that is not apparent without background knowledge.

I live in China, so I see the pollution here first hand. I came from the UK and my parents and grandparents told me about the pollution in London and other cities in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The pollution in London at that time was terrible.

My grandfather told me stories of getting lost on his way home from work. The pollution was so heavy he couldn’t see the other side of the road. He couldn’t see the street signs on the poles telling him where to go. He couldn’t see any people. He told stories of crossing the road and getting distracted part of the way across and not being able to tell which way he had come and which way he should continue.

In contrast, the China pollution is nowhere near that bad. It is news largely because we now have measures of the pollution and because the green people have our attention on the global warming and dead forests. However, the health issues are rather overstated.

The pollution in Beijing might irritate your eyes or agitated your asthma but it is nowhere near the level that London hand in 1952.

Look, if you will, at the Great Smog article on Wikipedia. I can back this up with reports I have read in newspapers, magazines and on the BBC TV and radio.

In London in 1952 was the Great Smog disaster. This was not the first such disaster and it wasn’t the last but it was by far the worst there has ever been.

It occurred in early December in 1952 and lasted for about 4 or 5 days. In that time, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 people died and 100,000 became ill due to the smog. Look at those numbers again. In London in 1952, thousands of people died due to air pollution in just a few days. Many tens of thousands became ill. It was a dreadful disaster.

The pollution in China is nowhere near the level reported from London. It is high, and China could and should do better but let’s have a little perspective here.

If we may return to the photograph that I started with. The difference between the two is that the Xi’an picture is taken at the worst of the pollution when the smog is densest. Whereas, the London picture was not taken at the peak level of pollution. The photographer has waited for the smog to clear enough to take a picture with some vague detail. Based on my grandfather and fathers reports, had the picture been taken at the height of the smog, it would just have been plain white with nothing visible at all.


How can I speak English like a native speaker if I’ve already lived for years in an English-speaking country and have yet to reach this level of fluency?

I understand this question has been asked many times but what I want to know is a little different. I can carry on conversation pretty easily but feel I still have many lacking I want to improve. One major problem I have noticed from last 4-5 years that though practising and talking a decent amount of time (I live in an English Speaking country), my English speaking fluency is not improved. It seems like my graph is not increasing though I am trying. How I can improve and fine tune the speaking so that I almost will be able to talk like a native?

The issue is, I think, that although you live in a native English speaking country, you have surrounded yourself with Chinese culture. You have made friends with other Chinese people, you watch Chinese TV and movies, you probably eat Chinese food, and so rather than having full immersion into English culture, you have only partial immersion. Thus you have picked up a Chinese expat English accent or Chinglish accent rather than the native accent you would like.

I know this first hand myself. I have spent 9 years living in China but I don’t speak fluent Chinese. I don’t even speak moderately passable Chinese. In fact, I’d say I don’t even know anything beyond the basics. At a push I might pass the HSK level 1 exam, the most basic level. The reason is that, although I live in China, I am immersed in English. I teach English, my wife speaks English, my friends all speak English, I watch English TV, listen to English music, read English books and English websites. My Chinese usage is limited to shopping in supermarkets and telling the taxi driver where I live.

What you have to do, is to break out of the Chinese environment and re-immerse yourself in English. This might mean moving away from your current residence so that you are forced to encounter new people and new situations. You also need to place yourself into environments where you have new tasks to perform and thus must learn in English, how to do those tasks. Widen your experience of English beyond the classroom and into the real world. Join a club or take evening classes in some hobby subject. As you encounter more new things, within an English language environment, you will be forced to develop your English skills to a higher level.


Do native English speakers learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) when they start to learn English as children in kindergarten or primary school?

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is intended to represent pronunciation. When learning a new language, using the IPA allows learners to map spelling to new pronunciations. The IPA helps you pronounce words you have never heard.

Native English learners learn pronunciation long before school. They learn to speak by listening to their parents, friends, TV and so forth. There is no need for them to use IPA to understand their native language.

When learning to read and write a school, the student maps pronunciation, word fragments and sounds that they already can speak, to spellings. It is the reverse process of the foreign language student.

So, no, English students do not learn IPA when learning English reading/writing at school.


How different are Scots and Scottish English?

Scots is nearly as different from Scottish English as Scots is different from English English or British English. There is a small number of shared words but there are a lot of different words too.

Scottish English is English. It is just as close to English as Scouse in Liverpool, Jordie in Newcastle, Estuary in North Long and Essex, Brummy in Birmingham, West Country in Cornwall, Potteries, Mancunian, Yorkshire, Cockney, etc. Scottish English is just an accent of English.

Scottish English isn’t really one accent. People from Morningside in Edinburgh speak differently from people in Bearsden Glasgow – even though both are upper-middle-class areas speaking Scottish English. Likewise, people from the western isles sound very different from people from Caithness even though both are rural and traditionally Gaelic areas.

Scots is very similar to English but it isn’t English. Most linguists consider Scots to be a separate Language. There are a lot of different words though there are also many similar words and loan words from English too. There is also some grammatical difference.

Scots has, however, been dying slowly. Everyone in Scotland can speak and understand both Scots and English. There a diglossia (Diglossia – Wikipedia). However, social and cultural pressures have often caused Scots to be treated as wrong. Children using Scots words at school, other than during Burns poem recital, would be chastised for not speaking properly. Scots speakers would be considered low class and uneducated.

This has lead to a great loss of Scots words. In recent times, Scots has been more prominently used but not in a native way. This is creating a new creole language of Scottish English and Scots that is closer to Scottish English with just a smattering of Scots words.


Above: Oor Wullie – a popular comic strip written in colloquial Scots with a Dundee accent.

Since in this diglossia, Scots is the low-class language, and English is the higher class language, nobody learns to write Scots. Older examples of Scots, such a Burns poems, are learned at school, but the pronunciation and vocabulary of modern Scots is different from Burns.

When Scots speakers write, they write in English. When Scots speakers read aloud, they will subconsciously translate parts of the text into Scots. The result of this is that written Scots, such as that in Oor Wullie cartoon, appears to be about 50% to 80% normal English. A southern reader might think that the text is Scotish English rather than Scots. However, when a Scots person reads the text, they will adapt the pronunciation of the anglicised spellings.

The above video explains – if you can understand him – some of what I have been discussing about Scots/Scottish English diglossia. The speaker tries his best to speak Scots, however, his education, as he tells, drummed the Scots out of him and so he slips in and out of the language. Sometimes he speaks Scots and sometimes he speaks Scottish English.

When standing up in front of the audience, his education will be overpowering. He will subconsciously want to speak Scottish English. He has to keep consciously correcting himself to speak Scots. I’m am sure that when he is talking privately, he will speak more in Scots and useless English.

This second video, the poet Christine De Luca reads two of her poems in Shetlandic Scots – a dialect of Scots with some Norse mixed in. During the video, she sometimes uses Scots and sometimes uses Scottish English. She is quite adept at switching between the two. Most of the time she seems to be consciously choosing which of the two languages to use and there are only a few subconscious slips.

Throughout the video, she refers to her Shetlandic Scots as a dialect rather than a language but I think most non-Scottish viewers will find her Shetlandic verses to be as distinctly different from English as, say, German might be. You can read more of Christine’s poems on her website.

How About me?

I grew up in Paisley, Scotland. I come from an upper working class family in a neighbourhood that was effectively lower middle class. My mother parents were lower middle class and my father’s side was skilled working class.

When I went to school, I spoke Scottish English. I learned to read and write in English. Other people in other parts of the town spoke a slightly different accent and my parents and teachers referred to their language as common and not proper. If anyone heard us saying “ain’t” or “cannae” we would be reprimanded.

Thus I am a Scottish English speaker. I can speak Scots but not without slipping into English and not with the right accent. I can understand Scots just fine when I hear it. However, reading Scots never feels comfortable. The writer might have a slightly different accent from what I grew up with, and spellings are not standardised, so reading Scots for me is akin to reading Shakespeare for the first time. It takes a few minutes to get your mind around things.

I think this mix-up of Scots and Scottish English and English has caused me a significant problem in my life. I have a big problem with spelling. Computer spellcheckers hide it a lot but I can see all the red underlines as I type even if you can’t. One of the major spelling issues is that I am never quite sure which vowels to use. The vowels that I wrote never matched up with the vowels that I spoke. I suspect that my school exam papers looked more like an Oor Wullie strip than good educated English.

Today I have lost a large amount of my accent. I work abroad teaching spoken English. I am teaching pronunciation and so I am forced to use a Received Pronunciation accent. I didn’t consciously do this, but when you are continuously forced into a hyper-pronunciation of every word all day every day, it has an effect. On the upside, I think my shift to an RP accent has improved my spelling so a small degree.


What is your methodology for teaching English as a foreign language?

Don’t try to teach English. At least for teenage and above who are past foundation level. Teach something interesting – art, history, simple science, geography, natural history, environmental issues, sport, etc. The English learning will happen along the way. The idea is to spark a lively discussion where the students are the ones asking the questions and the teacher a source of answers. This forces the student to actually use the language rather than just learn vocabulary and grammar rules by rote.


What city in China do you recommend for teaching English?

Keep away from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Too many foreigners live in the areas. This saturates the market meaning that you’ll end up with the dregs of the bad jobs on offer. Heading for a smaller, but not small, city means that you have less competition and so can acquire better quality positions.

For example, according to Shenzhen News, there were 19,000 foreigners registered living in Shenzhen during 2013. Shenzhen is a city of about 10 million people. My city has about 3.5 million people (a third of Shenzhen) and I count 20 foreigners living here. Let’s repeat that, one-third the size but one-thousandth of the competition!

I have friends living in 2nd tier cities such as Dalian. They get about 50% more in salary than me. However, their living costs significantly more. In addition, I get plenty of private tuition requests that pay well for my time, meaning that my actual income is about double what my Dalian friends survive on.

Which cities? Well, I can’t speak for all the cities but I’d be looking at cities with the letter B or C in the car registration plates. Places that are less obviously attractive but still with large economies such as the Liaoning, Shandong, Hebei, etc. rather than Guangdong, Zhejiang, Beijing, Shanghai. You’ll find more work and you will meet more with the local people and culture than you would in a bigger city.


How are language and emotion linked?

People are different people when using different languages. Studies show that people think differently, behave differently and even have different morals. One example is to compare now you feel when saying, “I love you,” with saying, “Wo ai ni” or the equivalent in your own tongue. In your native tongue, it feels much more personal and more heartfelt than in the foreign tongue. It’s not just in the head either. It is a measurable effect, with sweat, faster heart rate, dilated pupils in the eyes and so on.

Each year I show the above video to my students as part of one of my classes. In the video, we have 25 people, each saying, “I love you” in their own language. The students enjoy the video but sit quietly through most of it. That is until the Chinese person comes on. At that point, there is always a laugh and a giggle in the class. At first I thought it was because of the big furry hat the Chinese man is wearing, but actually, quite a few other people in the video have odd clothes, stick out their tongues and dance about. The reason the Chinese person got a reaction is because he is speaking in my students first language. They feel an emotion with that man that they don’t feel with any of the others. Even when the others speak English and the students understand it, they don’t get any emotional connection from it.

If your wife often says, “Te amo,” to you (Spanish for, “I love you”), then you build emotional connections to that phrase. So that phrase has meaning to you beyond just being a set of words that you understand. If your wife says the English, French or German words, then it won’t trigger the same response because those words haven’t the same learned connections to the emotion.

The studies I read say that it is not simply fluency. The brain handles language in a complex way. Your primary language functions within a different section of the brain from your secondary language (except in those who are bilingual from birth who use the same part of the brain for both languages). Other parts of the brain handle the translation/understanding and control responses. When you hear something, the relevant part of the brain takes it in, interprets it and then various parts of your brain create responses to that input. If you often you hear something and have the same response each time, your brain starts to grow connections to that response so that it happens faster.

These responses can be very particular for a certain sound. For example, a parent will wake up sharply to the sound of their child crying but sleep through someone else’s child crying. The particular sound of your child triggers responses while a marginally different sound with the same meaning has a reduced response. The more you hear a phrase and react to that phrase the strong the reaction gets. Thus when growing up, you connect all sorts of emotional responses to phrases in your primary language. The connections between the section of your brain that handles the primary language, and the section that handles the response, grow, expand, become stronger and faster.

The secondary language, however, is in a section of the brain that is less well linked. When it hears a phrase, it is slower to pass it on to the responding areas of the brain. It might well pass the message to a completely different area from what the primary language processor did.

You can demonstrate this with experiment. Consider the following experiment for you to try. Pick a passing stranger and just say the Russian, “Я тебя люблю” to them. Then repeat with the Spanish, “Te amo”. Repeat again with English, “I love you.” You could go on with any other languages you know. Repeat with many strangers of different ethnicities and sexes. Here it is you saying it, so your fluency of understanding the words has zero influence. You understand what you are saying perfectly before you say them. However, you will feel more reserved, more abashed, more brazen, more confident, or shyer, in one language rather than another. It is the words themselves that trigger an emotion rather than the understanding of the words.


What barriers are there to non-native English teachers teaching English in China?

I have been teaching English in China for just over 6 years. However, I don’t teach English. Very little of my class time is spent on grammar. Punctuation and spelling don’t play big either. All of these things can be taught just as well, if not better, by a native Chinese teacher of English. They have studied the grammar books and can explain the technicalities of the language to the students in a way they will understand.

Instead, what I teach is culture, geography, lifestyle and history. Through this, I create an understanding of the language and how to use the language that a non-native speaker cannot match. Of course, an American will teach a slightly different set of culture from an English person, so a student should seek to study with a variety of teachers from different English-speaking nations.

Though non-native English teacher may have a good English skill, they don’t have the same knowledge of the culture of England or America. They have their own nation’s culture. To many employers, this nation’s culture will seem to be not relevant to English study but more relevant to a study of that nation’s language.

Aside from this, there may be issues of racism and preconceptions about what makes a good teacher. There may be ideas held by schools or parents that English teachers are white Caucasians or that teachers have a certain accent. Should you differ from these preconceptions, you may find your employment limited. The opposite may also sometimes be true. Some people who look right might find offers of teaching jobs even though their own English skills are substandard.

This is not to say those non-native teachers cannot teach English in China. They can and they do. I know Iraqi, Bulgarian, French, Nigerian and South African teachers working here, whose native language was not English.