Comparison of English and Chinese (Suprasegmentals)

As suggested by many previous studies, Chinese is a typical syllable-timed language while English is a typical stress-timed language. The differences in stress and rhythmic patterns between English and Chinese cause a lot of troubles for English learners in China.

 1. Stress

“One of the most noticeable features of English is that some of its syllables are strong while many others are weak” (Roach, 2000, p81). English stress pattern is manifested through syllable length, loudness and pitch. In other words, stressed syllables are longer, louder and higher pitched than unstressed ones. Sometimes one word that is stressed differently may have different grammatical functions and meanings, for example, the homographs “record” (verb) and “record” (noun). “Record” has the stress on second syllable when it is a verb, and it has stress on the first when it is a noun. The shift of the stress even makes a noticeable difference to the sound of the vowels, for instance,  “e” in noun “REcord” is pronounced as /e/, but /ɪ/ in verb “reCORD”.

A number of studies have stressed the importance of “stress” in achieving the speech intelligibility (e.g. Filed, 2005). Unfortunately, many Chinese speakers of English are not aware of the differences in rhythmic patterns between English and Chinese. The tendency of assigning the stress s randomly  in a word or put equal emphasis for each syllable in a word is very common among Chinese learners of English.


The function words, such as auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions,  that are usually pronounced in their weak forms as weak syllables in English are far less frequent in Chinese. Some function words in Chinese are even pronounced more prominently than other words, such as the “pronouns”, for example,  Deterding (2006) found that Chinese speakers have a tendency to stress of final pronouns.

The following illustrations show a contrast between the English and Chinese rhythms. Not like English rhythm which is an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, there is no obvious stress contrast in Chinese words, Chinese speakers tend to put same amount of stress on each syllable or simply to delete the unstressed syllables.



(This illustration is  adapted from Prator and Robinett’s fourth edition of Manual of American English Pronunciation(1985) and reterived from

The majority of Chinese characters (syllables) receive the equal stress, with the exception of a few words which have  unstressed ‘endings’. For example, in the Chinese words父亲(father) [fùqin], 喜欢(like) [xǐhuan], and东西(thing) [dōngxi], the second characters receive the ‘neutral’ tone (unstressed syllable) which is shorter and lighter than other four tones in Mandarin. Another type of the weak syllable is the structural particles (e.g. [le] ‘了’and [de] ‘的’) and modal particles (e.g.[mA] ‘嗎’and [yA] ‘呀’).

However, the words with ‘neutral tone’ only make up a small proportion of words in Mandarin, so Chinese speakers of English are not sensitive to the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables, especially in complete sentences. Most native English speakers find this “all-strong-form” pronunciation of Chinese speakers unnatural.

2. Intonation & Tone

One of the most distinctive differences between Chinese and English is that Chinese is a tonal language while English is an intonation language. In other words, the meaning of a Chinese word depends not only on the phonemes which make up the word’s pronunciation, but also the pitch variations of the syllables or words. However, in English, there is no individual tone for each word, instead, the tones (pitch) changes occur over a stretch of utterance to emphasize the key information or express emotions and specific purposes.

Mandarin has five different tones for every syllable: (1) high-level (—), (2) rising tone (/), (3) dipping tone (\/), a (4) falling tone (\) and (5) a neutral tone (light and short). For examples, the Mandarin syllable [ma] can be pronounced with 5 different tones and each of them carries a different meaning:  [ma] with high-level means ‘mother’(媽), [ma] with rising tone means’hemp’(麻), [ma] with dipping tone means c’horse’(馬),  [ma] with falling tone  means ‘to scold’(罵), and [ma] with a neutral tone means a question word (嗎) . (See Figure 1)

Figure 1. Five Tones in Mandarin

 9 tones in Cantonese

(The picture is retrieved from

Cantonese has 9 tones that are presented in Table 1  (the last three tones share the same pitch with first, third and sixth tone respectively).

Table 1. Nine Tones in Cantonese


Open syllables

Checked syllables

Tone name

dark flat

dark rising

dark departing

light flat

light rising

light departing

upper dark entering

lower dark entering

light entering


high level,
high falling

medium rising

medium level

low falling,
very low level

low rising

low level

high level

medium level

low level

Tone number







7 (or 1)

8 (or 3)

9 (or 6


As mentioned above,  Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch changes occur over a single syllable instead of a stretch of utterance or the entire sentence, so it’s not easy for Chinese speakers to acquire the English intonation.  Zhang and Yin (2009) revealed that Chinese has intonation as well, but the intonation in Chinese usually falls on the ending words and the intonation is actually a slight variation on the basis of the word tone instead of  a stretch of utterance or the entire sentence” (p142), for example,

  • “Shall we go now?” (rising tone) becomes Shall we go now?”↘(falling tone)
  • “Shall we go now?” becomes “Shall we go now ()?” (Putting rising tone for “now” only instead of carrying gradual rising intonation for the whole sentence.)

3. Other prosodic features

Other prosodic aspects, like liaison, assimilation and elision, are seldom found in Chinese, so Chinese speakers experience a lot of difficulty in these aspects. Liaison is frequently used in English to make speech more coherent and musical. Chinese speakers are not accustomed to producing sentences with liaisons or assimilations. Instead, they tend to clearly articulate every word separately and put equal stress on each syllable. These fundamental differences make Chinese speakers tend to sound staccato and monotone. Table 2 presents some examples of prosodic features of Chinese speakers.

Table 2 Other prosodic features of Chinese speakers

l   Absence of linking (liaison )

e.g. ‘a lot of’ is pronounced as ‘a-lot-of’ instead of ‘a-lo-tof’

l   Absence of elision

e.g. ‘next day’ is pronounced as /nekst deI/ instead of /nekst deI/

l   Absence of assimilation

e.g. ‘a fatboy’ is pronounced as ‘a-fat-boy’(/ə-fæt bɔɪ/) instead of ‘a-fap-boy’(/ə-p bɔɪ/)



Chen, C. F., Fan C.Y., & Lin, H.P. (1996). A New Perspective on Teaching English Pronunciation: Rhythm. [serial online]. January 1, 1996. Retrieved from

Field, J. (2005). Intelligibility and the Listener: The Role of Lexical Stress. TESOL QUARTERLY, 39(3), 399-423.

Van de Poel, K. (2002). Interlanguage Phonology: Implications for a Remedial Pronunciation Course For Chinese Learners of English (Antwerp papers in linguistics p17-p46). Retrieve from

Roach, P. (2000). English Phonetics and Phonology: A practical course. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Zhu, L. (2011). Research on Chinese English Phonetics-The process from Chinese phonetics to Chinese English Phonetics(漢語語音對中式英語語音的影響研究)

Bejing, China: China Environmental Science Press

Zhang, F.C. &Yin, P.P. (2009). A Study of Pronunciation Problems of English Learners in China. Asian Social Science, 5(6)


One comment on “Comparison of English and Chinese (Suprasegmentals)
  1. phonohd9 says:

    I love it

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