Center for Language Education
The Hong Kong University
of Science and Technology

English Advice Sheets



The aim of this leaflet

This leaflet provides information on why pronunciation problems may occur and specific sounds in English that Cantonese speakers may have difficulty with.

Why problems occur

Pronunciation problems happen when speaking a second language because most people are used to hearing and making sounds which only exist in their mother tongue.

There are many sounds in Cantonese and English that are similar. Some however, are only partially similar and others are totally different. When you hear or are trying to say the partially similar or totally different sounds, it’s easy to make mistakes because you are used to hearing and making sounds in your mother tongue. It is important therefore, to make yourself aware of how sounds in a different language are made and practise listening to them and saying them as much as possible.

To make language sounds we move our jaw, tongue, lips, and the vocal cords in our throat in a number of different ways. If, for example, your brain is not used to telling your tongue to move into a certain position in your mouth in order to make a particular sound, then you may have difficulty saying that sound clearly.

How do you solve the problems?

Here are a few suggestions on how to train your brain:

  1. Learn to recognise that there are differences between some English sounds and some Cantonese sounds.
  2. Learn to hear clearly and think about how sounds are made when you are listening.
  3. Discover how these sounds are made. Find out for example:
    • how far open your jaw should be
    • whether the tip of your tongue should be touching the inside
      of your upper teeth or whether it should be lying flat
    • if your lips should be ’rounded’ like when you are going
      to kiss someone or ‘spread’, like when you smile
    • whether the vocal cords in your throat should be vibrating
      or not (we talk about this in terms of ‘voiced’ or ‘voiceless’sounds)
  1. Practise moving your jaw, tongue, lips etc. as correctly as
    possible so that you are able to make the problematic English
    sounds clearly.

Many of the materials listed on P3 give explanations and show pictures of where to put your tongue or how to move your lips etc. These materials help you understand how English is spoken and help you practise your English pronunciation. You can find more ideas on how to practice from P1 to P4.

English sounds, which can cause problems for Cantonese speakers

Below is an explanation of which English sounds Cantonese speakers tend to have difficulty pronouncing:

Vowels: (see P5 & P3)

According to some researchers, Cantonese speakers tend to say only 7 of the 11 vowel sounds in English clearly. The main reason for this is that in English there is a difference between what are called ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowel sounds. Cantonese speakers tend not to make a difference between ‘long’ and ‘short’ sounds but instead, produce something in between. Another reason for making mistakes when saying English vowel sounds, may be related to understanding how to move the jaw, tongue, lips etc. into the correct position. Below is a list of ‘long’ and ‘short’ English vowel sounds, which can cause problems for Cantonese speakers:


Consonants: (see P5& P3)
To understand how problems occur with consonant sounds, it’s important to understand how the vocal cords in your throat work. When you say any vowel sound and some consonant sounds your vocal cords should vibrate. Sounds produced this way are known as ‘voiced’ sounds. The consonant sounds that do not cause your vocal cords to vibrate are known as ‘voiceless’ sounds. All vowel sounds are ‘voiced’ so don’t worry, you already know how to do this.

Try feeling how your vocal cords vibrate to make a voiced sound. Place two fingers lightly across your throat. Say one of the vowel sounds listed above. You’ll notice that the vibration of your vocal cords can be felt in your fingers.

Other problems can also occur with some English consonant sounds. Below is a list of sounds that can cause problems for Cantonese speakers.


Learning Tip

The best way to check the pronunciation of words, is to be aware of the way sounds are written to show correct pronunciation and to use a dictionary. Refer to P3 and P5.

Other areas to be aware of:(see P6 & P3)

  • Word stress
  • Sentence stress
  • Linking

Improving your English pronunciation is not just about understanding and practising the differences between vowel sounds and consonant sounds, it is also very important to be aware of how all the different elements that create speech are put together. Understanding and practising English word stress and sentence stress, linking etc. will help you enormously in hearing connected speech clearly and in being able to speak English with confidence and more fluency.


This leaflet is part of the Self-Access Pronunciation Advice Sheets supporting independent learning, produced by the HKUST Center for Language Education. This leaflet was written by Sarah Toogood 2000, and edited by Dr Tony Hung of Hong Kong Baptist University. If you copy from this leaflet, please acknowledge the source. Thanks.

This page has been archived.

It has not been updated nor maintained since 1 Sept 2021.

For the latest information on the Center of Language Education, please check the new CLE website.