6 pronunciation challenges for native Cantonese Chinese speakers

Cantonese and English are very different languages.  One of the big differences in that Cantonese is a tonal language: each syllable has a tone which changes the meaning of a word.  Some scholars claim there are up to 9 tones in Cantonese.  There is agreement that there are at least 6.  Learning how to use the different tones is one of the main challenges native English speakers have when learning Cantonese.

Native Cantonese speakers face 6 main English pronunciation challenges when speaking English.  Even if they understand and speak English fluently, native Cantonese speakers who want to be easy to comprehend have to:

1. Learn English speech sounds not found in Cantonese, e.g.:

  • “b” as in business or libel;
  • “d” as in director or bid;
  • “g” as in guess or figure;
  • “v” as in valid or five;
  • “z” as in Zach or size;
  • “sh” as in share or dish;
  •  “zh” as in vision or measure;
  • “r” as in redress or carry;
  • “ch” as in chairman, cheque or catch;
  • “j” as in jam or page;
  • voiceless “th” as in thick or maths; and
  • voiced “th” as in this and that.

2. Unlearn common sound substitutions used when first learning English.  Native Cantonese speakers often substitute one sound for another when speaking English.  Examples include saying:

  • “s” for  voiceless “th” at the start of words;
  • “f” for voiceless “th” at the end of words;
  • “d” for voiced “th” at the start, in the middle and at the end of words;
  • “s” for “z” at the start, in the middle and at the end of words;
  • “f” for “v” at the start, in the middle, and at the end of words;
  • “w” for “v” at the start and in the middle of words;
  • “l” for “r” at the start, in the middle and at the end of words; and
  • “l” for “sh” at the start, in the middle and at the end of words.

3. Learn how to use combinations or “clusters” of consonants together, e.g. when saying English words containing consecutive consonants like “sl”, “sm”, “sw”, “skr”, “br”, “pr”, “ld”, “pt” etc.  Cantonese uses no consonant clusters.

4. Learn to add the final consonant to English words consistently.  Final consonant deletion (or omission) is a common feature of many Native Cantonese speakers when speaking English.

5. Learn how to pronounce English words of more than one syllable, including using strong (or stressed) and weak syllables correctly to produce English words. (Cantonese words are monosyllabic.)

6. Learn English sentence stress patterns and prosody, including English intonation patterns.

Speech pathologists are specially trained to teach people how to pronounce sounds and to use correct word and sentence stress patterns.  If you need help with your English pronunciation, get in touch.

Source: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Facts on Cantonese Phonology.



Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

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