TOEFL Speaking

The English and Mandarin Chinese languages are extremely different and so many Chinese students who are training to sit the TOEFL exam find that they suffer from certain problems. Of course, every language is unique, but in this article, we will explore the common issues that Mandarin speakers face when preparing for TOEFL speaking.


The first problem is not really unique to Chinese speakers, as it is a sound that troubles almost all learners of the English language. It is the “I” sound in words like “ship” and “pig.” This sound does not exist in most languages around the world, and so it is very common for English learners to change it into something that, to them, seems similar. As such, Chinese and other learners might say “sheep” instead of “ship” and “peeg” instead of “pig.” To a non-native speaker of English, these might sound similar, but to a native speaker they are completely different.

This can be a really hard problem to overcome, and so it takes some very specialized practice to deal with it. Learners should first train themselves to hear the difference between the sounds, and then to recognize the physical shapes that the mouth makes when making this sound. For one thing, “I” causes the mouth to make a very narrow shape, while “ee” gives a much wider shape. Think about it: why do we say “cheese” while taking photos? It’s because it forces our mouths wider into a smile.

If you want to get over this problem, you can record yourself speaking with your phone. Take a video so that you can see the physical differences between the shapes your mouth makes with these different sounds.

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There are some consonants that provide difficulties for Chinese speakers, too. The first and most notable one is the “th” sound. Of course, this troubles speakers from many other countries because “th” is also a quite rare sound in languages. However, it is particularly difficult for Mandarin Chinese speakers.

Most commonly, Chinese speakers will replace the “th” sounds in words with “s” or “z” sounds. For example, they might pronounce the phrase “that is third” as “zateessird.” Of course, this has little meaning in English and may well confuse the listener. Such mistakes, then, need to be rectified.

Fixing this sort of error requires paying attention to the physical movements of the mouth when speaking. The reasons “th” is so difficult for many English learners is that it requires moving the tip of the tongue to between the teeth. This is an unnatural motion for many people who spoke different languages growing up, and it can feel strange. Still, it is utterly essential to English, as the “th” sounds are very common.

Chinese speakers often struggle with consonants at the end of English words, too. One type of problem that they face is in ending a word with a single consonant such as a “k” sound. For example, many Mandarin speakers will add a phantom extra consonant to the words “book” and “ice.” They would say these as “book-uh” and “ice-uh.” This problem even exists with cluster consonants, so they would say “book-uh-suh” instead of “books.”

Other issues

In Mandarin Chinese, there is no spoken difference between the pronouns for “he” and “she” and so many Chinese learners of English confuse these. It is common even to find a very high-level speaker say something like, “My father works for an oil company. She is in charge of international sales.” To an English speaker, this is really quite confusing. When we listen to Chinese people telling stories like that, we struggle to follow because the pronouns are essential in English to tracking who is doing what action. While this problem doesn’t exist with written English, as there are different Chinese characters for males and females, it is a big problem in the spoken language.

Before you even think about doing TOEFL, you need to eliminate this problem. You will have to practice telling stories about male and female acquaintances and keeping track of them by using different pronouns. You need to get used to paying attention to the pronouns used and correcting yourself if you make a mistake with “he” or “she.” This may seem difficult at first, but you need to persevere as it really is an important component of English, and an examiner would be confused if you mixed the pronouns up in your speech. This would definitely cause you to lose marks.

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