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Why do many Cantonese speakers have difficulty producing clear and intelligible English?

One of the major factors for this is that the two languages differ drastically in some important features.

Firstly, Cantonese and English do not share the same sound codes. This means that for a Cantonese speaker there are many new sounds to learn that are not in the mother tongue. The same applies for an English native speaker if they plan to master a true Cantonese accent.

Secondly, Cantonese and English vary in the speech rhythm used.

Finally, Cantonese, unlike English, is a tonal language. This means that the pitch movement of sounds will impact on the word meaning. Cantonese speakers utilise 6 tonal patterns to convey meaning, where English speakers are not required to show such nuance. Word meaning is never shaped by the pitch qualities of the word.

So, based on these major features,  what can improve the English pronunciation of a Cantonese native speaker? Try these 3 main tips to assist you.

*If you are a Mandarin Speaker, be sure to check out this article tailored for your needs here: MANDARIN SPEAKERS

How to Reduce your Cantonese Accent

Create Accurate English Consonants

If you want to hear improvement in your English accent, there are a few sounds specific to English that need to be mastered. Pronounce these sounds with care. They should sound unlike any sound in Cantonese. These following 2 sounds are just 2 of the many sounds you will need to address to ensure clear English. Speak with us at Voice Science for more information on the other key sounds needed according to a comprehensive accent assessment tailored to your current accent.

TH /ð/

This is the first of two “th” sounds that occur in English. This sound can be found in words like though, this, leather, father and many more. Endeavour to produce this sound correctly in all instances as it is a very frequent sound of English. Incorrect production of this sound, will impact significantly and result in a stronger accent.

Please note that the sound will only occur at the start or in the middle of words. It never appear as the last sound of a word. 

This sound often gets exchanged for a /d/ as it is the nearest sound Cantonese has to replace a “th”.

Try drilling these words and make sure the sound is clear:








Z /z/

This sound is not present in Cantonese. 

Try drilling these words.






Take care with word endings

All those years of speaking Cantonese and being surrounded by Cantonese and eating decadent Cantonese custard pies and cuisine has invested you with the gift of a wonderful language and the knowledge of intricate characters. But these years have also set you up to speak with certain habits that may get in the way of clear English pronunciation. One of the characteristics of Cantonese speech that is likely to impact on your pronunciation is the way ends of words are managed. After struggling to say your “ch” sound maybe at the start of a word, don’t lose focus and throw away all your efforts by what you do once you end the word. Listen carefully, in English, unlike Cantonese, you must not add an extra vowel at the end or delete the final sound of the word. Listen carefully to the ends of words in English native speakers. Record yourself reading short sentence passages. Make sure you can hear the consonants at the ends of words.

Try these sentences, taking care to produce the very last sound marked in bold at the end of each word.

MrSmith sitithe lounge rooreading her book.

Research the article for nexweek.

Speech Melody and Intonation

What is intonation? In a nutshell, this is the melody of speech. Every language has different intonation requirements. This means that for some languages, a very precise rhythm and melody is required. When we learn a new language, we often apply the intonation pattern of our mother tongue onto the new language. Even if all our sounds are correctly produced for the new language, accent would still be considerable. Since Cantonese is a tonal language, listen carefully to how English native speakers express their sounds musically. You will notice that there is a more monotonal quality to the English language compared to Cantonese.Try to keep your voice colour and tone even throughout as much as possible. Slow down and link words together very closely and smoothly. Never give in to the desire to rush your speech. If you apply a slightly slower speech rate, listeners will comprehend your message easier and you may also feel calmer while speaking. 

Diagnostric Accent Assessment Melbourne

Read more about our accent reduction training packages.

Accent reduction takes time and practice. It is not uncommon to still have an accent even after years of expatriate life. An accent can be an asset that sets you ahead. Listeners soon realise you are multi-lingual. Sometimes an accent can interfere with your message. Speech breakdowns can occur and it can be harder to express thoughts clearly to your listener. Don’t give up! Work on your pronunciation weaknesses strategically and practice daily to improve your English.

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