Pronunciation problems encountered by Cantonese speakers
Segmental features refer to the articulation of consonants (i.e., letters without sound) and vowels (i.e., letters with sound, such as ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’), as well as the syllable stress pattern in words (i.e., letters that are pronounced with higher volume, longer length and higher pitch).
‘b’, ‘d’, and ‘ɡ’ sound
Cantonese speakers may tend to substitute unaspirated /p/, /t/, and /k/ for /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/ when these consonants are located at the final position of a syllable, such as ‘mob’ (/mɒb/), ‘stand’ (/stænd/) and ‘sig’ (/sɪɡ/). Cantonese learners of English also have problems with the voiced /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/ in the syllable-initial position. Thus, /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/ in words such as ‘because’ (/bɪˈkəz/), ‘divide’ (/dɪˈvaɪd/) and ‘goal’ (/ɡəʊl/) are often devoiced.
‘v’, ‘w’ and ‘f’ sound
Cantonese speakers may tend to substitute /f/ for /v/ when the consonant is located at the final position of a syllable, such as 'live’ (/laɪv/). Cantonese learners of English also have problems with /v/ in the syllable-initial position. They may substitute the consonanat with /w/, such as ‘van’ (/væn/).
‘z’ and ‘s’ sound
There is no /z/ in Cantonese, so speakers may replace the consonant with the voiceless counterpart /s/, thus they may mix up pairs such as ‘zip’ (/zɪp/) and ‘sip’ (/sɪp/).
‘th’ sound (/θ/ and /ð/)
Since there is no ‘th’ sound in Cantonese, speakers thus substitute the sound with /t/, /f/, or /d/ in words such as ‘thin’ (/θɪn/), ‘teeth’ (/tiːθ/), ‘they’ (/ðeɪ/) and ‘with’ (/wɪð/).
Cantonese speaking English learners may confuse the ‘sh’ (/ʃ/) sound and ‘s’ (/s/) sound, and they may articulate the sounds interchangeably. For example, words such as ‘save’ (/seɪv/) and ‘shave’ (/ʃeɪv/). The situation is more complicated when the consonant is followed by a lip-rounding vowel /uː/, such as the word ‘moon’ (/muːn/).
‘ch’ and ‘j’ sound (/tʃ/ and /dʒ/)
In Cantonese, there is no equivalent sound for ‘ch’ (/tʃ/) and ‘j’ (/dʒ/) sounds. Thus, speakers may replace these two sounds with their similar counterparts /ts/ for ‘ch’ sound and /dz/ for ‘j’ sound. For example, they may articulate the word ‘change’ (/tʃeɪndʒ/) in a lip-spreading manner (/tseɪndz/) instead of a lip-rounding manner. This problem can also be found even in advanced learners.
‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘n’ sound
In Cantonese, 'r’ sound is absent. Therefore, when the consonant is put at the word-initial position, such as ‘ride’ (/raɪd/), some speakers may substitute with ‘l’ or even ‘w’ sound.
When the ‘n’ sound is put at the word-initial position, some speakers tend to replace it with ‘l’ sound, for example ‘name’ (/neɪm/) may be pronounced as ‘lame’ (/leɪm/). When the ‘n’ sound is put at the word-final position, most speakers may tend to drop the consonant, such as ‘nine’ (/naɪn/) may be pronounced as [naɪ].
Similarly, when ‘l’ sound is put at the word-final position, some speakers may drop the sound or replace the sound with an [u] quality because in Cantonese, the ‘l’ sound is absent at the word-final position. Thus, words such as ‘will’ (/wɪl/) may be pronounced as [wɪu].
Long and short vowel pairs
In Cantonese, although long vowels exist, the length difference is not as clear as in English. Therefore, speakers may confuse the long and short vowel pairs, such as ‘ea’ sound in ‘cheap’ (/tʃiːp/) and ‘i’ sound in ‘chip’ (/tʃɪp/), ‘oo’ sound in ‘food’ (/fuːd/) and in ‘foot’ (/fʊt/), and ‘au’ sound in ‘taught’ (/tɔːt/) and ‘o’ sound in ‘tot’ (/tɒt/).
In English, there is a weak vowel sound called schwa /ə/. This vowel is widely pronounced in words with not-emphasized syllables, such as the ‘a’ sound in ‘about’ (/əˈbaʊt/). However, since there is no weak vowel in Cantonese, learners may thus pronounce the weak vowels with the strong vowel counterparts, which leads to an inappropriate syllable stress.
(Reference: Chan, Alice Y. W, & Li, David C. S. (2000). English and Cantonese Phonology in Contrast: Explaining Cantonese ESL Learners' English Pronunciation Problems. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 13(1), 67–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908310008666590)
Suprasegmental features refer to the manner when speakers produce speech, such as connected speech (I.e., how words can be connected in a phrase or clause) and rhythm (I.e., the intonation and stress of words in a clause).
In Cantonese, there is no weak form for any syllable. Therefore, speakers may pronounce all the words in their strong form in a phrase or clause. This will lead to an unnatural and foreign-sounding impression.
In English, words can be categorized as ‘content words’ and ‘function words’. For example, in the sentence below:
It is the responsibility of a student to study hard.
Content words are ‘responsibility’, ‘student’, ‘study’ and ‘hard’. The rest of the words are thus considered as ‘function words’. Therefore, the word ‘of’ should be pronounced in its weak form (/əv/) but not its strong form (/ɒv/).
In Cantonese, the pitch of each character is evenly distributed in a sentence. The rhythm is realized by the use of different tones. However, since there is no tone in English, the rhythm is thus realized by the difference in pace and intensity of words in a sentence.