Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Cantonese Speakers

City highrise

Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Cantonese Speakers

Many Cantonese speakers will speak fluent, clear English because English is typically learned very early on in Hong Kong and other areas where Cantonese is spoken.

For those who occasionally make pronunciation mistakes in English, here is a guide for you. Reduce your native language interference with these tips…

1. Consonant Clusters

Consonant clusters are sets of two or more consonants pronounced one after the other, such as in the words street or swim. This is a common feature of many English words, but because these sequences don’t exist in the Cantonese language, they can be challenging for those aiming to align their speech with Modern Received Pronunciation.

Native Cantonese speakers who are practising Modern RP may find themselves dropping consonants or inserting vowels into such clusters. It can help to slow down while practising pronouncing such consonant clusters, and speed up to a natural speaking pace when you become more comfortable with them.

proud, smooth, breeze, cold, trap, string, straw

2. Final Consonants

Often, final consonants get omitted: this is partly because of restrictions that Cantonese has on consonant positioning. In Cantonese, only six consonants can be used in a final positioning: /t/, /k/, /p/, /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/.

Practice pronouncing each word-final sound slowly to develop this new instinct and make use of connected speech techniques. This will make it easier to avoid final consonant deletion when speaking at a quicker pace.

bird, prizes, grab, laugh, tag, mall, taxes

3. Multisyllabic words

It can be challenging for some native Cantonese speakers to pronounce multisyllabic English words because Cantonese words are all monosyllabic, meaning they only have one syllable. By breaking multisyllabic words down into smaller parts, they can be easier to read and pronounce.

In case you need a reminder, a syllable is a part or chunk of a word, and each syllable typically has one vowel sound. Syllables will normally be separated by consonants in English (car-pɪt), as affixes (un-like-ly), or as compound words (foot-print). 

prepare, conditionally, sandwich, wonderful, tomorrow

4. /r/

The phoneme /r/ is often tough for Cantonese speakers who are working on English phonology as this vowel-like approximant is a sound that doesn’t exist in Cantonese. On occasion, /l/ will be substituted as the nearest sound. When we pronounce /l/, we touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth behind the upper front teeth. For /r/, the tongue will be lower in the mouth, curled slightly upwards without touching the teeth. Remember that the spelling <wr> is also pronounced as /r/!

ready, creative, write, recently, agree, wrong

5. /z/

Voiced consonants in English can be challenging for native Cantonese speakers as they don’t exist in Cantonese. One example is the voiced /z/ (zoo) which is often substituted with the voiceless /s/ (soo). It is an important phoneme to become comfortable with, as many pluralised words end in a /z/ sound in English (eyes, dogs). To produce a voiced sound, vibrate your vocal folds, keeping a finger on your throat to feel the buzzy vibration.

freezer, cosy, buys, reasons, prize

6.  Voiceless TH

The voiceless ‘th’ sound appears in many common English words. It is found in thanks, Thursday, and numerical words like fifth. Because this phoneme doesn’t exist in Cantonese, speakers often replace it with /s/ at the start of words and substitute it with /f/ when it is word-final. To pronounce /θ/, touch the tip of your tongue on the bottom edge of your top teeth and breathe out while keeping your tongue in position.

think, bath, everything, truth, worth, thumb

7. Tense vs. lax vowels

Native Cantonese speakers often struggle with differentiating between tense and lax vowels when learning English phonology. This can result in words that are contrastive for native British speakers merging when a Cantonese speaker says them (for example, reach becoming rich). This can impact sentence meaning and clarity when speaking with other English speakers. Relax your mouth for the single “i”, which is often pronounced /ɪ/. 

Take a look at a word’s phonetic transcription in the dictionary to work out if it is a tense or lax vowel sound. You can learn precisely how to articulate lax vowel sounds and how to make them contrastive using British Accent Academy’s courses and resources.

(tense) feet/fit (lax)
(tense) fool/full (lax)

8.  /v/

Native Cantonese speakers often struggle with the /v/ sound, sometimes replacing it  with /w/ (liwe instead of live). To produce /v/ clearly, touch the bottom of the upper teeth to the top of the bottom lip and vibrate the air in a buzzy way.

level, hive, valuable, cave, vacation


9. SH and S

It can be hard to distinguish between /ʃ/ and /s/, particularly when they appear in the same word and around tricky vowels, as a Cantonese speaker. Protrude the lips for /ʃ/ and make the tongue come close to the teeth in a hissing motion for /s/.

sushi /ˈsu:ʃi/

Learn exactly how to shape your mouth for the consonants of British English & master the rules here:

10. Other voiced consonants

Other voiced consonants including /dʒ/, /b/, and /g/ may also be tricky for Cantonese speakers of English, but not always.

 judge, babe, beg

11. Intonation

Cantonese speakers may also need support with British English’s use of tone in context. Learn the rules and exceptions of English tone and melody using this e-book (+ audio)

12. “grown”, “frown”… as well as other difficulties that overlap with Mandarin speakers’ challenges

Some errors made by Cantonese speakers overlap with those whose native language is Mandarin. Read the Mandarin version of this blog post here for more potentially relevant tips!

Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from Cantonese or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.