Cantonese (Chinese) vs English

There is not one single Chinese language as such but several varieties which are more or less mutually understandable. In all, these are spoken by over 1 billion people (making it more popular than English).

Of the different varieties of Chinese, Mandarin is the most widely spoken version with over 800 million speakers. The other major variety is Cantonese which, along with English, is the official language of Hong Kong.

This article looks at the major issues that teachers will find in teaching English to Cantonese native speakers along with a few pointers to overcoming those issues.

Pronunciation Problems

One of the major problems TEFL teachers find when they’re working with native Cantonese speakers, is pronunciation. Whilst there are many sounds shared between English and Cantonese, there are quite a number of very different sounds and some which do not exist in the other language.

Vowel Sounds

There are two main issues with vowels‏‎. The first is that Cantonese contains only 7 of the 12 or so vowel sounds found in English so you will need to teach completely new sounds to your students.

The second issue is that Cantonese does not make the difference between long and short vowels that is found in English. Cantonese vowels tend to fall in the middle.

/ɪ/ as in ship – /ʃɪp/
/iː/ as in sheep – /ʃiːp/

/ʊ/ as in soot – /sʊt/
/uː/ as in suit – /suːt/

/ɒ/ as in pot – /pɒt/
/ɔː/ as in port – /pɔːt/

In these examples above, Cantonese native speakers may well produce something which falls in the middle of each word.

Consonant Sounds

The main issue here is that consonants‏‎ in Cantonese are voiceless. It’s not always easy for Cantonese native speakers to produce the voiced consonants we have in English, for example:

/v/ as in van
/z/ as in zip
/ð/ as in this

Other Pronunciation Issues

Some problems are not due to pronunciation per se but to the way in which Cantonese uses sounds. For example, in Cantonese many words can begin with either /l/ or /n/ and have the same meaning. In English the meaning is often different so a Cantonese speaker may say these interchangeably without hearing the difference between them. To some Cantonese native speakers these pairs sound the same:

lip – nip
low – no
lap – nap

Another problem arises with /l/ and /r/. You may well find Cantonese native speakers using the /r/ instead of /l/:

life instead of rife
led instead of red

Another common problem is using /s/ instead of /ʃ/ so saying /səʊ/ instead of /ʃəʊ/.

Finally word endings. Cantonese speakers may well drop the end of the word off and something like

/meɪ miː ə keɪ/

instead of

/meɪk miː ə keɪk/

Correcting Pronunciation Issues

There are a number of ways you can help correct these issues.

  • Make sure students are aware of how to produce the sounds; this means diagrams showing the physical shape of the mouth and the way in which the tongue and lips move, etc.
  • Use plenty of minimal pair practice to isolate the problem sound.
  • Make sure the students see the written word and explain how in English we say it fully and don’t chop it off at the end as can happen in Cantonese.

Problems of Intonation

Cantonese is a tonal language. This means it uses rising and falling tones to express word meaning.

English is different in that changes in intonation‏‎ produce changes in emotion or to show question/statement.

You will need to use diagrams to explain how intonation in English works and then, of course, practice.

Grammar Issues


Verbs‏‎ express time and meaning differently in Cantonese. In particular the concept of time is not handled in the verb form as it is in English. Thus you will likely come across many errors in the choice of verb (not necessarily in the construction).

What do you do? meaning What are you doing?
He has worked on a farm. meaning He works on a farm.

In cases like these it’s sometimes difficult to know whether the student has used correct English or not; you will have to work out exactly what the student means and whether the correct verb form was chosen.

Also with verbs, modal verbs‏‎ aren’t used in Cantonese and students are sometimes reluctant to use them. This can lead to speakers sounding a little abrupt:

Give me the pen. instead of Could you give me the pen?

Other Grammar Issues

Cantonese does not have articles‏ so they are often missed out by students.

There is no differentiation between male and female personal pronouns‏‎ so a Cantonese speaker may well say something like:

I like Lady Gaga. He is American.


Cantonese uses a very different writing system to English; words in Cantonese are not made up of individual letters but symbols which show the word as a whole. This poses challenges to English teachers and the basics of word construction need to be taught.

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Posted in Foreign Languages vs English.

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