tips for pronunciation and a glimpse into the Cantonese romanization systems


Hello! I got a question on my Facebook messenger a couple of days ago from a listener. “I find out that there're some phonetics systems out there - like Jyutping - is it really necessary to learn these? It seems difficult for me to mimic your pronunciation sometimes even when I look at the text on your website And do you have any suggestions for me to start with the pronunciation please?”

Excellent question! Thank you for asking. I think many other Cantonese learners might also be puzzled about the same thing. So perhaps I can start with kind of explaining the phonetic systems or I guess more formally they call it the romanization system a bit, and which one you would want to go for is depending on which system you are most comfortable with.

- Jyuping

1. One of the most widely accepted and recognized Ping Yin system for Cantonese. Although there are still some tiny flaws in the system, they often use J to represent sounds that are supposed to be Y. Some people learning Cantonese have also reportedly saying the initial consonants are strange to read.

2. Another thing is that even if you have learned the Jyuping. The initial consonant, the vowel, the final consonant, and the tone in numbers, if you reverse search it in google to look for the character, if might still give you several characters. Because as I have mentioned, many many words have the same sound. Jyuping is a great system if you want the most accurate pronunciation, yet I think, the end goal is to learn the Chinese characters. I refer back to Jyuping too if there is a word that is easily confused, like sometimes there are words that HK people say, and are not the accurate pronunciation, but since everyone uses it, it is the standard, and people know what you are saying. But if you use the accurate pronunciation, HK people, on the other hand, might not understand you.

- S.L wong Romanization system

1. Based on the IPA system, the International Phonetic Alphabet. The issue with this is that if you have never learned IPA, this might just be another extra effort. I assume most of us learned a bit of IPA back in school but not extensively. My BA was in English so I did study it extensively in Linguistics, so I think this system would be great for people who already are familiar with the IPA system and know how the sounds are pronounced in the system. They use j to represent sounds of y, for example, 一 meaning one,they would spell it ask Jat instead of yat. It can be confusing for some people.

- Guangdong Romanization system

1. Further divided into Guangzhou romanization, Chaozhou romanization, the Hakka romanization, and Hainanese romanization. The most relevant here would be the Guangzhou romanization, the rest are dialects within the Cantonese subcategory.

2. The Guangzhou romanization is based on the Mandarin phonetic system, so if you already speak Mandarin, and know the romanization system, this might be a better option.

- Cantonese Pinyin system

1. This directly corresponds to the SL Wong romanization system, also using IPA This is also the only Cantonese romanization system that is recognized by the Hk examinations and assessment authority. If you are looking to get yourself eventually qualified as a Cantonese speaker, like with a cert and all, this might be a good romanization system to go with.

- Yale

1. The good thing about this one is for the consonant, they use mostly English consonant to replace the weird Cantonese consonants. Close enough. Also interestingly, I believe in categorization, they put Cantonese tones into 6 tones and up to 7 tones, which I guess dumbs it down for most people.

2. Another thing is that for tones, they are not going with the numbering system and following more of a mandarin system of the strokes to determine the tones. It’s good for people who might need more body gesturing to guide them to get to the correct tone.

- Sidney Lau romanization system

1. This system was originally proposed in the 1970s for “ex-pats”, or I guess some would say ex-pat is just a fancy word for immigrant especially Caucasians, But it’s geared towards English speakers. Compared to Yale, Sidney Lau’s system is more intended for English speakers just from reading the phonetic symbols themselves.

There are some more romanization systems I believe but these are more widely known. Like I said, which one to go with really depends on you, which you feel is the most comfortable for you. Whichever system you go with, one small tip is to always associate a word or a sound for these initial consonants, vowels, and final consonant, so when you do see these romanizations or pinyin later on, you can always go back to those most comfortable words and sounds you know to compare and contrast and see if you got that right.

On the same topic, if you aren’t sure still if you are pronouncing the words right along with the pinyin system, be sure to check like google translate, remember to go for the traditional Chinese option, not the simplified one because it will give you the mandarin pronunciation instead. There is perhaps a better website, developed by my alma mater, The Chinese University of Hong Kong,, or on the Google search engine, you can search CUHK Cantonese, and it should show in the first couple of results. This page gives you the option to search up individual words, and have an audio where you can play the word, it comes along with the romanization of SL Wong’s system, the one I mentioned earlier, also words that are synonyms, so you can learn those words that have the same sounds as well. You can reversely search the pinyin and search up the word. The only thing with this website is that it is only available in Chinese, so you might need to use the initial google translate for the webpage. Otherwise, when you are on that webpage, on the left-hand side there are 2 search bars, the top one is for searching with individual characters, and the lower one is for searching with pinyin. Replaying those audios however many times you need. Then once you think you are only with it, you can start searching for this word in a sentence, and see how it is pronounced in a sentence.

Another tip is that you MUST pay close attention to the tones. Like I mentioned before, we have 9 tones for each sound, and each of these tones can form a different word with a different meaning. To make it clear, I will use the example of the word Si (like the word yes in Spanish).

Si same sounds:

Si 1 詩 (poetry)

Si 2 史/ 屎 (History/feces)

Si 3 試 (test)

Si 4 時 (time)

Si 5 市 (market)

Si 6 事 (things / incident)

Another very important thing to learning the sounds of Cantonese is that there are lots of silent ending sounds. What do I mean by that? So with the ending consonants, ending with k, t, p. An example would be, 八百八十一,literally means eight hundred and eighty-one, you can refer back on my episodes on numbers to learn more. Let’s say with SL. Wong’s system, for 八百八十一, would be bat bak bat sap jat. So if you can hear me say 八百八十一 881, you can hardly hear me say the ending consonants, instead of pronouncing every individual consonant. This is one of the characteristics of Cantonese, the ending consonant is there but very slight. So hence, Cantonese people when learning ending sometimes would have issues pronouncing the ending consonants as well.

Another suggestion from me, if you are open to it, is that you can play Cantonese podcast/radio or Cantonese speaking things, it can be soft music while you are sleeping. Many studies have shown that you can learn while you are sleeping, so kind of let that sink into your subconscious while you sleep. I am no doctor, but this research done by, suggests that let’s say an average person’s life is just under 80 years, we spend about 26 years sleeping. So that’s a lot of learning time that we might just be missing out. If you are open to it and it doesn’t disrupt your sleep too much, you can try this method as well.

You can also enable the speech to text function, Siri, or functions that will allow your phone to read those Chinese characters to you, etc, even though I know they might sound a bit robotic, just to check if they can detect what you are saying, and see if your pronunciation is accurate.

There are quite a few challenging pronunciations for non-native Cantonese speakers, don’t worry, with just a bit of hard work you can be near native.

First I would like to introduce some challenging Initial Consonant

- No initial consonant

1. For example, part of my name ON, 安, means safe, there is no consonant before the vowel. Many more words like that, such as 愛 OI, means love.

- Gw- as an initial consonant

1. For example, the word, Cantonese, 廣東話, the first character 廣, GWONG, it’s like saying wong, but you add the g- sound in front. So 廣, GWONG. Same sound but the different tone, Gwong 光, means light or bright. Can you get that initial consonant right?

- G- as an initial consonant

1. Initial consonant starting with G-, would be similar but different from consonants starting with GW- So for example, Hong Kong 香港,second character for Kong 港, would be like Gong, which is different from the Gwong 廣 earlier, can you hear the difference? 香港 Heung Gong, and 廣東話 Gwong Dong Wa?

- Kw- as initial consonant

1. Similarly, we have initial consonants that start with Kw- and K-, those might also be easily confused. So using the same vowel and ending consonants, with Kwong, would be 礦,like mineral. Kwong 礦 (mineral) starting with Kw- and 廣, GWONG (like from the word Cantonese earlier) starting with Gw- can you hear the difference?

- K- as initial consonant

1. Again using the same vowel and ending consonant, with words starting with k- like Kong, you would have a word like 抗 Kong, meaning defense. Again with 香港 Heung Gong and the word 抗 Kong, Can you hear the difference?

- Ng- as initial consonant

This might be very challenging for some of you. This one you must nail though because the word I or me 我 starts with the ng- consonant. When you make this sound, it’s like, the back of your tongue is touching your throat slightly. You know, that hanging thing that is in the back of your mouth? So try that and make like a ng- sound. So with the word 我 ngo, just make that sound and add the oh sound to make 我 ngo. Some people who have lazy sounds, don’t produce that ng- sound as well. It’s quite understandable. Some other words like teeth, 牙, ngaa, and eyes, 眼,ngan.

- N- as initial consonant

People might confuse the n and l initial consonants, I mean even native speakers would as well if they don’t really care and it’s also most of the time quite easily understood even if you say it wrong because it is implied in the context. For example, the word 腦 nou, means brain. vs:

- L- as initial consonant

老 Lou, meaning old. A similar-sounding word that starts with the L- sound as the initial consonant. Can you hear the difference between 腦 nou, (brain) and 老 Lou (old)?

- Ng- as the Main vowel

Some words have no English vowels, like A, E, I, O, U, and the Ng- sound becomes the main vowel. Words like that such as, 五 (ng) number 5, or like the word lunch 午餐 (ng chan). This sound has a slight difference than the English utterance um… like when you are unsure. With the Ng sound supposedly your mouth would be slightly open, lips slightly parted when you produce this sound, whereas with the unsure um… that would be a closed mouth sound where your lips are touching each other. See if you can pronounce these words? 五 (ng) number 5, and lunch 午餐 (ng chan). Some locals still pronounce the Ng sound as the unsure um… sound, which is understandable for other locals.

Final consonant:

- -K as final consonant

1. Just like earlier, the word 百 hundred (bak) vs

- -T as final consonant

1. 八 eight (bat)

- -Ng as final consonant

The words that end with -ng such as both characters in Hong Kong 香港 (heung gong). With the ending sound -ng, your back of the tongue slightly touching the back of your throat.

-N as final consonant Whereas some people might confuse the ending consonant -ng with -n, such as the character 趕 (gon), meaning rush or in a rush, exactly the same sound as the English word gone (the past participle of the word go). Some people whose mother tongue is Cantonese, very interestingly confuse the -ng with the -n, so with 趕 (gon), meaning rush, they would say 港 (gong) as in the Kong in Hong Kong. Can you see if you can pronounce these words correctly?

Dummy Pinyin:

o at the beginning of the year when I started out these lessons I have Dummy pin yin for any Chinese character that I talked about, I will add the Dummy pin yin back to the lessons where I didn’t include them. You don’t have to completely demolish your pre-existing English Alphabetical or pronunciation concepts. It will just be adding a little and chopping off a little. Please definitely don’t take this as the most accurate ping yin or pronunciation. I would leave that work for academics who are studying this. This would be a start for beginners who don’t have pre-existing concepts to Cantonese pronunciation, and you are supposed to read it like English but with a Cantonese accent. And it’s not a system, it’s whatever sound that works in English that can form a Cantonese word.