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Your Ultimate Cantonese Pronunciation Guide

Cantonese, a language known for its difficulty, is spoken by approximately 72-million people, most of which are in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong. Given its complexity in terms of both pronunciation and writing systems—of over 5000+ characters—learning this language is quite a challenge.

But if you’re up for it and want to learn Cantonese language pronunciation, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for a complete guide on basic Cantonese pronunciation and Cantonese pronunciation rules!

Download Your FREE Guide to Beginner Cantonese!

If you want to master the Cantonese language and become fluent, you must learn the Cantonese alphabet letters first. And you need physical worksheets to practice on.

This eBook is a MUST-HAVE for all Cantonese learning beginners!

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Download your FREE Cantonese practice sheets PDF today and learn the Cantonese language in no time!
This is a must-have guide for absolute beginners

1. Introduction to Cantonese Pronunciation


1- Cantonese Writing Systems

Modern Cantonese pronunciation includes two versions of written Cantonese: a formal one and a colloquial one. The formal version, though different from spoken Cantonese, is actually similar to Standard Chinese. Both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers can understand it with little difficulty. 

The colloquial version, on the other hand, is comprised of both Chinese characters and other characters specific to the Cantonese language. Essentially, this is very close to spoken Cantonese, making it difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand.

2- Cantonese Characters & Romanization

You probably already know that Cantonese doesn’t use an alphabetical writing system like English does. Instead, it uses characters that are comprised of parts that depict physical objects or abstract ideas.

Physical:

口 (hau2)—mouth

目 (muk6)—eyes

Abstract:

上 (soeng6)—up

下 (haa6)— down

Literacy in Cantonese requires the memorization of thousands of components and characters. As you can see, this can be quite daunting for new Cantonese learners.

To start learning the sounds of Cantonese without the baggage of characters, Cantonese jyutping (also referred to as Cantonese romanization) comes in. This is essentially a way to help translate Cantonese pronunciation to English pronunciation.

Character:

Jyutping / Romanization: fat6

Meaning: Buddha

Jyutping is the transcription of Cantonese using Roman letters. This makes learning Cantonese much easier, particularly for English speakers. As you begin to learn more characters and improve in Cantonese, you’ll eventually rely less and less on romanization. But for now, it’s a good place to start.

3- Cantonese Sounds

There are approximately six-hundred unique sounds and nine different tonations in the Cantonese language. Each Cantonese character can be referred to as a syllable. These syllables can be standalone words, or they can be grouped together to make compound words. Each syllable, or character, in Cantonese is made up of an initial and final sound. 

To get a grasp of the various sound combinations in the Cantonese language, make sure to see the Jyutping Chart. There you’ll find all the possible Cantonese sounds listed with audio files that you can listen to and repeat after to perfect your pronunciation. Once you have this down, Cantonese phrases’ pronunciation will be a lot simpler!

2. Cantonese Consonants and Vowels

There are twenty-two consonant sounds and seven vowel sounds in Cantonese. You can form every single word in Cantonese by using these sounds. Here are a couple of Cantonese alphabet pronunciation charts for you to study! You’ll also find examples of Cantonese phrases with English pronunciation. 

Consonant Table

#

Jyutping

IPA

Sounds like…

Examples

English

1

f

f

F in “find”

化 (faa3)

transform

2

h

h

H in “house”

河 (ho4)

river

3

j

j

Y in “you”

日 (jat6)

day

4

g- ; -k

k

K in “ski” (*Unaspirated)

嫁 (gaa3)

to marry

5

k

K in “kite” (*Aspirated)

卡 (kaat1)

card

6

gw

QU in “square”or“squeak” (*Unaspirated)

卦 (gwaa3)

hexagram

7

kw

kʷʰ

QU in “quiet” or “quaint” (*Aspirated)

誇 (kwaa1)

exaggerate

8

l

l

L in “let”

老 (lou5)

old

9

m

m

M in “mouse”

媽 (maa1)

mother

10

m (syllabic)

Previous M sound, but held longer

唔 (m4)

not

11

n

n

N in “nice”

拿 (naa4)

take

12

ng

ŋ

NG in “sing

我 (ngo5)

me / I

13

ng (syllabic)

ŋ̍

Previous NG sound, but held longer

五 (ng5)

five

14

b-/-p

p

P in “span” (*Unaspirated)

巴 (baa1)

bus

15

p

P in “pan” (*Aspirated)

怕 (paa3)

afraid

16

s

s

S in “saw”

沙 (saa1)

sand

17

d-/-t

t

T in “stand” (*Unaspirated)

打 (daa2)

hit

18

t

T in “tan” (*Aspirated)

他 (taa1)

he

19

z

ts

Unaspirated TS or DZ sound in “tsunami” (*Try saying the word “zoo” with a T in front of it)

借 (ze3)

lend

20

c

tsʰ

Previous TS sound, but aspirated

車 (ce1)

car

21

w

w

W in “we”

蛙 (wa1)

frog

22

-

ʔ

The glottal stop in “uh-oh”

愛 (oi3)

love

Vowel Table

#

Jyutping

IPA

Sounds like…

Examples

English

1

aa

a:

A in “far”

沙 (saa1)

sand

2

e

ɛː

E in “bear”

啤 (be1)

beer

3

i

I in “ski

試 (si3)

try

4

o

ɔː

O in “ore” (*Should be more vibration at base of throat)

火 (fo2)

fire

5

u

U in the word “true”

呼 (fu1)

call

6

oe

œː

Very similar to the U in “fur” (*Compress your lips)

靴 (hoe1)

boot

7

yu

y:

Similar to the U in “menu

注 (zyu3)

Note

Feel free to refer to these Cantonese alphabet pronunciation charts as needed while you go through the rest of the article.

3. Tricky Cantonese Consonant Sounds

Learning Cantonese pronunciation can take a long time, and is often frustrating for Cantonese learners. But by knowing what to look out for, you can have a smoother time learning.

  1. [z]

The difference between the Jyutping -z and the English “-z,” is that the Cantonese sound is made with your tongue touching the back of your upper teeth. This results in a more [dz] sound.

  1. [c] 

Sometimes, this consonant gets mixed up with the [z] sound. Keep in mind that the “-c” is aspirated, whereas the “-z” isn’t. “Aspirated” means that you let air out when producing this sound.

  1. [j] 

This is the same as the English [y] in the word “yes.”

  1. [ng] 

There’s a similar sound in English, but it never falls at the beginning of the word. For example, by slowly pronouncing the word “sing,” (note that your tongue touches the back of your mouth), drawing out the [ng] sound at the end, and holding it, that’s the [ng] in Cantonese as an initial.

[ng] is a sound change that’s underway in modern Hong Kong Cantonese—as time goes on, young people are more frequently leaving this sound out during casual conversations. If you listen carefully, you may find that your Cantonese friends seem to say 我 (o5) instead of the correct(ngo5) in informal conversations. However, it’s still worth practicing this sound as dropping the [ng] isn’t yet considered standard speech by many people.

4. Cantonese Intonations

Correct Pronunciation
  • The first tone is high and steady: [si1].
  • The second tone is the rising tone and has an intonation similar to that used in English to indicate a question (i.e., “huh?”): [si2].
  • The third tone starts from the middle and is steady: [si3].
  • The fourth tone is the lowest flat tone: [si4]. You can feel a slight vibration at the base of your throat when you’re doing it correctly.
  • The fifth tone is a rising tone and starts from the lowest of your range and rises to the middle: [si5].
  • The sixth tone is a flat tone that starts from somewhere between the base and the middle: [si6].

The Entering Tones

The seventh, eighth, and ninth tones are called entering tones. However, they’re not real tones in the phonetic sense, but are rather syllables that end in a stop consonant such as -p,- t,- k, or a glottal stop.

  • The seventh tone is a syllable that ends in a glottal stop and shares the same pitch with the first tone: [sik1].
  • The eighth tone is a syllable that ends in a glottal stop and shares the same pitch with the third tone: [sek3].
  • The ninth tone is a syllable that ends in a glottal stop and shares the same pitch with the sixth tone: [sik6].

There’s no better way to get the hang of these Cantonese tones than by listening to and practicing them yourself. If you have access to a native Cantonese speaker, it’s great practice to have them say words and then to repeat after them, with the native speaker correcting you where necessary. By choosing to learn Cantonese from a native speaker, you’re allowing yourself a better shot at success. Gradually, the tune of the tones will stick.

You can also use the materials at CantoneseClass101.com to listen to native speakers’ pronunciation on MP3 recordings of vocabulary words. And repeat, repeat, repeat. You can also utilize our voice recorder which allows you to hear and compare your pronunciation with the native speakers’.

5. Changing Tonation

Introduction

In Cantonese, when two or more characters are next to each other, the original tonal pronunciation of some characters may change.

Jyutping is quite useful for transcribing Cantonese, but it isn’t a perfect system—Jyutping only reflects the original tone of a character and normally doesn’t account for any tonal changes. 

We’ll represent the tone changes in Jyutping below, but only for demonstration purposes.

Raising Low Tones in Two-Syllable Compound Words 

This rule applies to two-syllable compound words and is by far the most common of all tone change rules.

Example:

Character:

Romanization: gok3 (pronounced with a mid tone)

Meaning: Cape

Character:

Romanization: lok6 (pronounced with a low tone)

Meaning: to fall

These two characters can form a two-syllable compound word: 角落 (gok3 lok6), meaning “corner.”

Unfortunately, this pronunciation is incorrect. If the second character in a two-syllable compound word is a low tone, it will typically be uplifted to one of the higher tones—either tone one or two.

Therefore, in this scenario, the correct pronunciation for this compound word requires us to change the tone of the second character, from a low tone, (tone six), to a higher tone (tone one). 角落 should be pronounced as (gok3 lok1) instead of (gok3 lok6).

Raising Low Tones to Modify Meaning

Tone changes are sometimes made to modify the meaning of concepts that are alike.

Example 1: Changing a low tone to tone one can add an inferior quality to the original concept.

Character: 咁大

Romanization: gam3 daai6

Meaning: so big

Character: 咁大

Romanization: gam3 daai1

Meaning: that’s it

Example 2: Changing a low tone to tone two will slightly alter the meaning of the original concept.

Character:

Romanization: tong4

Meaning: sugar

Character:

Romanization: tong2

Meaning: candy

6. Top Three Pronunciation Mistakes to Avoid

Mistakes

Mistake #1: Using the Wrong Tones

Most learners aren’t familiar with tonal languages like Cantonese. The meaning of a word can change if the pitch is changed, even if the pronunciation is the same. For people who don’t speak a tonal language, some tones may sound nearly identical to each other. This problem of perception is perhaps the most difficult part of learning a tonal language like Cantonese.

Mistake #2: Mixing up J and Y in the Jyutping System

The Jyutping romanization system is new to absolute beginners, and one of the most confusing aspects is the J consonant. Although it’s represented as a J, it actually sounds like an English Y sound. Hence, whenever you see the letter J in Jyutping, remember that it’s pronounced as a Y sound.

Mistake #3: Pronouncing the Final -P, -T, -K

Many English speakers tend to pronounce Cantonese words ending in a -p, -t, or -k like they would in English—byreleasing a strong burst of air. However, this is incorrect as the final -p, -t, and -k are unreleased in Cantonese. Instead, you should cut the sound off.

7. Why is Correct Pronunciation in Cantonese Important?

Correct Pronunciation

Proper pronunciation is important, very important. Some say it’s even more important than getting the grammar perfectly correct! Why would this be?

1) Good Understanding 

If communicating with native speakers matters to you when learning Cantonese, you need to be understood when you talk, and you need to be able to understand the native speakers. After all, without understanding, the purpose of language is null and void! In order to be understood, you need to be able to speak the language in a way that is familiar to native speakers, or at least recognizable by them. 

When learning to speak a new language, you will learn that the more you progress the more intricate it becomes! For instance, almost every language has vocabulary that may look the same in writing, but because the words are pronounced differently, they have very different meanings. This means that you may say a word in Cantonese, and because of a slight change in pronunciation, the meaning of the word changes completely. Understandably, this can make for pretty embarrassing situations! At worst, your mispronounced Cantonese will sound garbled to a native speaker. 

Knowing the nuances of how a word or letter is pronounced will also help you to understand spoken Cantonese better.

No worries if this feels hard; you’re learning, and with our help at CantoneseClass101, you will not have a problem with mispronunciation if you follow our advice and examples carefully.

2) Good Communication 

Not pronouncing Cantonese or any other language correctly can lead to a lot of frustration because you’re unable to express what you mean, and you will not be understood correctly. Even if you have total knowledge of Cantonese grammar, and can write it like a native, not knowing how to speak it properly will only make for very frustrating communication all around.

3) A Good Impression 

Even if you’re only a beginner, it is possible to speak any language correctly. This way, you are bound to make a good impression on native speakers, and when you’re more fluent, you will be likely to garner a lot more respect than a fumbling newbie speaker who doesn’t care much for correct pronunciation. 

People often have a lot of patience for someone who learns to speak a new language, but native speakers are more likely to address you and engage with you in conversation if you work hard on your accent. This is simply because you’ll be able to understand one another! So, proficiency in pronunciation can mean the difference between having none or plenty of Cantonese speaking friends. It will also serve you well in the workplace, and make you popular with your Cantonese speaking managers and employers or employees.

Learning to speak Cantonese properly is also a sign of respect for not only the language, but also the native speakers and their customs.

8. Secrets to Learning the Correct Cantonese Pronunciation

Improve Pronunciation

1) Use voice recording tools to perfect your pronunciation

CantoneseClass101 has plenty of resources to help you with your Cantonese pronunciation, so be sure to make thorough use of our recordings with native Cantonese speakers. These are available not only to demonstrate to you how you should pronounce Cantonese vocabulary, but also sentences and dialogues. Watch and listen to these over and over again to train your ear, and watch the teacher’s mouth as she speaks in the video lessons. Then, copy the speech as best you can. Later, you can record yourself to hear if you sound like a native speaker and compare yourself with native speakers. Great for self-motivation.

2) Practice in front of the mirror.

And see that you’re copying the correct lip and mouth movements.

3) Use our CantoneseClass101 dictionary!

Use the Cantonese dictionary provided by CantoneseClass101 to look up words and listen to the audio pronunciation. This will go a long way towards giving you an idea of how to pronounce a word or letter correctly.

4) Train your ear to the language!

Make an effort to listen often to Cantonese music and recorded books, and watch plenty of Cantonese movies and/or TV shows in Cantonese. This will train your ear to the language, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you pick up the accent. Remember, this is the way we learned to speak when we were young - mostly by listening to the adults talking, and repeating what they say!

5) Practice, practice, practice… 

Repetition of the same thing may be boring, but in learning a new language, you’re creating new pathways in your brain. For these to remain and become habitual, you will need to repeat the correct pronunciation often.

6) Make friends with a native Cantonese speaker.

Don’t be shy to address them in Cantonese! Ask them to correct you when you make a pronunciation mistake - this is a wonderful way to practice and learn the language first-hand, and also to make new friends.

7) Practice your pronunciation with your Cantonese teacher!

If you’re a serious student and don’t know where to meet native Cantonese speakers, consider investing in CantoneseClass101’s Premium PLUS plan. This means you will have your own native Cantonese teacher available to practice your pronunciation with, and much more! Send recordings of yourself speaking Cantonese and get feedback from your Cantonese teacher.

9. Conclusion: How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

Secrets to Learning

We hope that our ultimate guide in Cantonese pronunciation proved helpful to you. Learning the pronunciation of the language spoken in Hong Kong will ensure you have a much better time in this beautiful place, even if it’s difficult at first. With CantoneseClass101.com, you can have your daily dose of Cantonese whenever and wherever you want, through your mobile apps, desktop software, and our website. We offer entertaining, engaging, and effective lessons on various aspects of the Cantonese language and culture. Until now, we’ve delivered more than 750,000,000 lessons to thousands of happy students from all around the globe. You can learn Cantonese with over 1060 audio and video lessons delivered by our knowledgeable and energetic hosts, detailed PDF lesson notes, an abundance of vocabulary learning tools, spaced repetition flashcards, and a lively community to discuss the lessons with fellow learners. What are you waiting for? Download our lessons, enjoy our audio and video files, and start learning now! And keep in mind that if you prefer a one-on-one learning approach and want to further accelerate your Cantonese learning, you can take advantage of our MyTeacher program by upgrading to Premium Plus!

10. How to Download Your Free Guide to Beginner Cantonese

Download Your FREE Guide to Beginner Cantonese!

If you want to master the Cantonese language and become fluent, you must learn the Cantonese alphabet letters first. And you need physical worksheets to practice on.

This eBook is a MUST-HAVE for all Cantonese learning beginners!

FREE Cantonese eBook

Download your FREE Cantonese practice sheets PDF today and learn the Cantonese language in no time!
This is a must-have guide for absolute beginners

Log in with Your Free Lifetime Account and we’ll give you a bundle of PDF cheat sheet including Survival Phrases, Romantic Lines, Learning Tips… — absolutely FREE!

3 Reasons to Learn Cantonese Through PDF Lessons

Let’s now take a closer look at how studying Cantonese lessons in PDF format can help you reach your dream in up to half the time of normal video or audio lessons!

① Saves Minutes on Your Data Plan

Learning Cantonese through PDF lessons can dramatically reduce your data use. Once a lesson or tool is downloaded, you can then access it offline via your computer or smartphone any time or place regardless of Internet access. And once you’ve downloaded the Cantonese lessons in PDF format, you can actually access them faster than logging in and trying to do so via a live site. So not only will learning Cantonese using PDF lessons save minutes on your data plan—it will save you some significant time as well as the lessons add up!

② Print and Take All Cantonese Lessons and PDF Tools With You Anywhere

Sometimes, a tiny smartphone screen just isn’t adequate, especially when you are trying to learn something new. The great thing about PDF lessons, tools or files is that they can be quickly printed and taken anywhere after you download them. In fact, printing out Cantonese lessons in PDF format can actually save you time when compared to going through the material on a smartphone with a small screen—even with the extra printing time!

③ Great Study Tool to Boost Retention and Mastery

Studying video or audio lessons online is a great way to learn a language because students can play and rewind sections as many times as needed until the lesson is mastered. But when you review the same Cantonese lessons again in PDF format, an incredible thing happens: your retention dramatically improves! Thanks to Time Spaced Repetition, seeing the information again in written format helps reinforce the information in your mind and improves both retention and recall. The benefits of learning Cantonese using PDF lessons quickly add up to significant time savings for you, your data plan, and your dream of learning a new language!

Why are we giving it away?

Learning to read and write is a must for all beginners. Although you get video lessons on how to write in Cantonese at CantoneseClass101, you’ll still need physical worksheets to practice on. That’s why you’re getting this printable tutorial PDFs as a gift.

11. Related Lessons

How to Say Hello in Cantonese
Do you know how to say hello in Cantonese? It’s the most basic phrase that you’ll need to say and hear in everyday life. If you don’t know yet, learn 15 ways to say hello and greet others in Cantonese. Why 15? The more variations you know, the more you can speak and the more fluent you become!
How to Introduce Yourself in Cantonese
Can you introduce yourself in Cantonese? Don’t worry! Check out the 10 Cantonese Lines You Need To Introduce Yourself with this free Review Sheet. From “My name is…“ and “I live in…” down to “My hobbies are…” Just review the 10 lines. It will only take you 2 minutes. Then, introduce yourself in the comment section below!
Cantonese Alphabet
Learn everything you need to know about the Cantonese alphabet. At CantoneseClass101, we introduce you to Cantonese writing in simple, easy-to-follow steps, and you can ask for advice or help anywhere along the way. It is important to master the Cantonese alphabet completely from the start.
How to Say Thank You in Cantonese
Has anyone thanked you today? We will. Thank you for reading this article and learning with us! In fact, today, you’ll learn the many different ways to say “Thank You” in Cantonese. It’s one of the most important Cantonese phrases. Check it out and watch the video too to practice your pronunciation.

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