Lesson 1 - A guide to English pronunciation

What is 'Pronunciation'?

Pronunciation is a broad term used to describe a number of aspects of producing the appropriate sounds in the language targeted. Most people think it refers to only the separate, identifiable sounds of words, but it covers more than just that. As well as the sounds there are also the sentence tunes, and the use of pitch and loudness to indicate importance or strong feeling.

The English sound system

All languages have their own unique sound systems. We can find sounds in English such as "th" which cannot be found in Cantonese. Similarly there is a sound "eui" in the Cantonese word for 'team': 'deuih' (), which does not exist in English. Sometimes the same sound is found in both English and Cantonese, e.g., 'ng'. But it never occurs at the beginning of an English word, whereas it does in Cantonese, as in 'ngàh' () and 'ngóh' (). These words are difficult for many English speakers to pronounce.

Some, but not all, of the difficulty Cantonese speakers have with English is due to such differences as these.


Another major area of difference is the tune or intonation of the language, which is the pattern of rises and falls in pitch. In Cantonese, the word meanings are distinguished by changes in pitch commonly called tones. For example, the word 'ma' can mean 'horse'
() or 'mother' () according to whether the pitch is rising or falling. However, in English, the changes in pitch indicate the feelings of the speaker or show that the sentence is not yet finished. 'No', for example, can be said in many ways: the pitch tells the listener the real meaning, that is, the emotional meaning, which the speaker wants to convey.


The third and probably the most difficult aspect of pronunciation to master is the rhythm of English, which is totally different from the rhythm of Cantonese (or other dialects of Chinese). English has strong and weak beats similar to the beat in music. The beat is marked by loudness and a higher pitch. We refer to it as stress. The sound in a stressed syllable is said to be strong. Individual words can be strong or weak, or contain both strong and weak sounds. Phrases have strong and weak sounds and in sentences, the most important words will be strong, or stressed. The differences between strong and weak syllables are extremely hard for speakers of Cantonese to master. This is possibly because in Chinese each syllable is written as a separate character. But the rhythm which works for Chinese does not work in English. The rhythm of the strong beats in English is regular, as in music. There may be any number of weak beats between the strong ones.

Word linking

To add to the difficulty, English words run together so that a sentence often sounds like one long word. This is often hard for Cantonese learners to do. Probably the most important way to master this running together is to practise linking words beginning with a vowel to the last sound of the preceding word, e.g., the_end; stop_it.



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