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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

Assume we are teaching or evaluating 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.  

Cantonese Speech Language Development

Consonant phonemes of Cantonese as compared to English


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.

PatternSuppressed by:
Syllabic PatternsMandarin English
Final Consonant DeletionAge 2;6Age 3
Substitution Patterns  
StoppingAge 3;6Age 3
FrontingAge 3;6Age 4
AssimilationAge 2;6Age 3
BackingAge 3;6Age 3
DeaffricationAge 3;6NA
DeaspirationAge 4;0NA
DelabializationAge 4;6NA

* 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.


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.