Cantonese Speech and Language Development: Difference or Disorder

Cantonese Speech and Language Development

About Cantonese

There are approximately 250,000 speakers of Cantonese in the United States, the majority of whom reside in California and New York.  There are 50-60 million Cantonese speakers worldwide, though some estimates are as high as 97 million.  Cantonese is spoken in southern China, southeast Asia, and Hong Kong.  Cantonese has a logographic/character writing system.  There are dialectal differences that have phonetic variations in both sounds and tones.

The Sound Systems of Cantonese and English

If you’ve read our book, Difference or Disorder:  Understanding Speech and Language Development in Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds, then you  Cantonese Speech and Language Development already know that we need to understand the similarities and differences between the sounds of languages before we can make a decision about whether a speech error is a language influence error or whether it might indicate a speech impairment.  So, take a look at the Venn diagram below for information about the consonants in Cantonese and English.

Assume we are testing a child from a Cantonese background who is learning English as a second language.

If errors occur on the sounds that are unique to English, that is indicative of language influence. 

If errors occur on the sounds unique to Cantonese or the sounds shared between Cantonese and English, that is indicative of a speech impairment.  

It’s more complex than that, obviously, but that’s a good place to start.  Then we need to think about the order of acquisition of the sounds in development, and of course the phonotactic constraints.  For more information on all of that, check out the Difference or Disorder book.

Cantonese Speech Language Development

Consonant phonemes of Cantonese as compared to English

Cantonese Speech and Language Development


The use of phonological processes in Cantonese speakers

See the chart below for information about when phonological processes are suppressed in the development of Cantonese.

Pattern Suppressed by:
Syllabic Patterns Mandarin English
Final Consonant Deletion Age 2;6 Age 3
Substitution Patterns
Stopping Age 3;6 Age 3
Fronting Age 3;6 Age 4
Assimilation Age 2;6 Age 3
Backing Age 3;6 Age 3
Deaffrication Age 3;6 NA
Deaspiration Age 4;0 NA
Delabialization Age 4;6 NA

* Based on the work of To, Cheung, & McLeod (2013) (Cantonese) and Shriberg (English).

DEVELOPMENTAL NORMS FOR SPEECH (age of acquisition, 90% mastery)

Age Consonant Phonemes
1;6-2;0 /p, j, t, n/
2;1-2;6 /m, n, w, ŋ/
2;7-3;0 /h, k/
3;0-3;6 / pʰ, tʰ, kʰ, l/
3;6-4;0 / kʷ, f, ts, s/
4;0-4;9 /tsʰ, kʷʰ/

(based on So & Dodd, 1995; Stokes & Wong, 2002)

More about Cantonese Speech and Language Development

  • Cantonese is a tonal language. There are 9 tones. The last three tones are very similar to the first, third and sixth tones except that they have a shorter duration.  Tones are phonemic.  In other words, they mean different things even when the same consonant-vowel combination is uses. The tones are described as high falling, medium rising, medium level, low falling, low rising, low level.
  • Now, we have to talk a bit about language differences, too. This following table highlights a few of the linguistic differences between Cantonese and English. These differences help you to know what language influence errors you might see. And remember, if the errors result from an influence from the other language, we don’t have to worry. That is a normal part of learning a second language.

Feature Cantonese English Possible Errors
Pronouns No gender used with pronouns Gender used with pronouns (e.g., he, she, him, her) Incorrect gender use of pronouns (e.g. “He” for “She.”
Plurals Nouns are not marked for plurality Add “s” to nouns Four dog*
Articles No articles Use of definite (the) and indefinite (a, an) articles Jen want pen*/Jen wants the pen
Tense Verbs are not modified for tense Verbs are modified for tense Sally jump*
Word order Usually Subject-Verb-Object but Cantonese is a topic-prominent language Strict Subject-Verb-Object This cloth I have touched*/I have touched this cloth.

A chapter including Cantonese speech and language development is slated to be included in the next edition of Difference or Disorder.  

Thank you for all the great feedback for all the languages you are requesting information on!  We have published posts or are working on:  Albanian, Amharic, Cambodian, Cantonese, Flemish / Dutch, Filipino/Tagalog, Hmong, Igbo,  Karen, Kinyarwanda (ever heard of that one?), Portuguese, Romanian, Somali, Thai, Turkish, and Urdu/Hindi.  For those not familiar with our current book, we’ve already compared and contrasted English with Spanish, Vietnamese (see post about it), Hebrew, Korean, German, Czech, Japanese, Farsi, Mandarin, French, Russian, Arabic, and the African-American English dialect.

If there are other languages you would like to see, please let us know with your comments below!


So, L. K., & Dodd, B. J. (1995).  The acquisition of phonology by Cantonese-speaking children.  Journal of Child Language, 22 (3), 473-495.

Stokes, S. F., & Wong, I. M. (2002).  Vowel and diphthong development in Cantonese-speaking children.  Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 16 (8), 597-617.

To, C. K. S., Cheung, P. S. P., & McLeod, S. (2013).  A population study of children’s acquisition of Hong Kong Cantonese consonants, vowels, and tones.  Journal of Speech, Language, Hearing Research, 56 (1), 103-122.


If you are looking for speech therapy in Austin, Texas for a child who speaks Chinese / Mandarin / Cantonese, contact our Austin speech therapy clinic.

Written by: Ellen Kester

24 Comments on “Cantonese Speech and Language Development: Difference or Disorder”

  1. February 23, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

    Request for Lao diff/disorder please .

    • February 26, 2017 at 9:08 pm #

      Hi Jane, I’ve added Lao to this list. Thank you for your input!

      • March 15, 2017 at 12:44 am #

        Please consider Tamil as well.

  2. February 23, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

    It would be great to also include the following languages: Greek, Polish, Italian

    • February 26, 2017 at 9:09 pm #

      Hi Brenda, Thank you. We already had Polish and Italian on the list. We’ll add Greek too.

  3. February 27, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    I would like information on difference/disorder for Nepali.

    • February 27, 2017 at 5:10 pm #

      Great. It’s now on my list!

  4. November 27, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

    In my area, we need Somali, Karen/Karenni, and Burmese.

    • November 27, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

      Hi Katrina,
      Thanks for your note. I already had Somali and Karen/Karenni on the list and I’ve now added Burmese.


  5. December 15, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    Hi, is this the same also for Mandarin? Thank you!

  6. January 25, 2018 at 1:11 pm #

    I was just wondering – in the chart you have listed here, it says that you are comparing Mandarin to English in phonological processes. Is that just a typo? In the reference it looks like you took it from a Cantonese vs English article but just wanted to check.


    • February 4, 2018 at 8:20 pm #

      Hi Alexandra,

      We have done posts on both Mandarin and Cantonese. This post was Cantonese.

      • April 5, 2021 at 9:22 am #

        Where can I find the link to the Mandarin post? I can’t seem to find it.

      • April 5, 2021 at 2:39 pm #

        Hi Emmah,
        There is a chapter on Mandarin in the Difference or Disorder book. We recently released an ebook version as well.

        Best, Ellen

  7. January 25, 2019 at 12:35 am #


    I see that this post is about Cantonese, but under The use of phonological processes in Cantonese speakers, you listed Mandarin under “suppressed by”. Is that a typo? Thank you!

    • February 4, 2019 at 10:04 pm #

      Yes, it is–thank you for pointing that out.

  8. Keith White June 11, 2019 at 2:34 am #


    • Keith White June 11, 2019 at 2:37 am #

      I would like an e-book or kindle version. I forgot to mention that.

  9. April 25, 2022 at 10:57 am #

    Please consider including Pashto!

  10. November 28, 2022 at 4:36 pm #

    We desperately need Mixteco and Triqui languages.

    • November 29, 2022 at 9:15 pm #

      Hi Mireya,
      I will send you links to some information plus two documents that will help facilitate pulling it all together.
      Best, Ellen

  11. March 28, 2023 at 10:01 pm #

    Thank you so much! The languages I would like to see added in your new book:
    Greek, Nepali, Mandarin, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil, Indonesian, Sinhalese.

    • March 29, 2023 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks for your input!

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