Why do Cantonese people speak English when you want to speak Cantonese?

What should you do?

Have you encountered situations where you are attempting to speak Cantonese, regardless of how fluent you are, then suddenly the other person starts responding in English or a language that you are familiar with and that they know. But that’s not what you wish they do, because of many reasons, Perhaps you want to practice your listening skills or speaking skills, or you want to make sure the other Cantonese speaker can use their native language with ease, whatever your reasoning is, it can be a little embarrassing when suddenly they start speaking English with you. You don’t have to be ashamed, it happens to language learners or even native speakers all the time!

My embarrassing moment was that once my relatives came to visit our family in Hong Kong 香港 (Dummy PY: Heung Gong), they are from New York 紐約 (Dummy PY: Noud Yurk). Cousins were born and raised there, although because they speak Cantonese at home with family, so their Cantonese is not bad, not native level but definitely good enough to have small talk. Of course at first we were speaking in English, then suddenly my cousin said, it’s okay, 我可以講中文 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Chong Men). I can speak Chinese, she said. Of course, immediately I was like in my head, is something the matter? Is my English not good enough? Definitely feeling a bit weird at the moment. But! First, when situations like this happen, sometimes, it could really be you, and sometimes, it really can be the other person speaking. Don’t worry, it happens all the time to language learners or even people who speak fluently in Cantonese.

If it is actually you, there are several possibilities. It could be your accent 口音 (Dummy PY: How Yum), or it could be because of the limitations of your vocabulary 詞彙(Dummy PY: Chee Wui), or it could be your sentence structure.

First thing first, it is not a bad thing to have an accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum), 口 (Dummy PY: How)means mouth and 音 (Dummy PY: Yum) means sounds, and 口音 (Dummy PY: How Yum) means accent. To have an accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum), it can be kind of cute, but of course, it depends on what kind of accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) and how pleasant it sounds. In Hong Kong, most local born and raised Hong Kongers will have the same accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum), what you hear on Hong Kong Cantonese TV, that is pretty much the standard accent 口音 (Dummy PY: How Yum) we have in Hong Kong. So very clearly, even if someone is coming from Guangzhou China, even if they speak Cantonese, their accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) will be slightly different, and more than often, unless their accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) is severely dulled down, maybe they have lived in Hong Kong for at least a couple years, we can still immediately spot out if you are a local or not. But local or not aside, say for example, a fluent Cantonese speaker from mainland China, first language is mandarin, but their Cantonese is fluent, sometimes, for example the word 雞蛋 (Dummy PY: Guy Darn), eggs, you will hear them say 機蛋 (Dummy PY: Gay Darn), because in Mandarin they will say Ji for the word 雞(Dummy PY: Guy) chicken, so you might also heard some people say 知蛋 (Dummy PY: Gee Darn). Obviously depending on the context, local Hong Kongers might understand them, but sometimes they might not. That’s when they might switch to English or Mandarin in this case. Quite often, people confuse having an accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) as not being able to speak the language. Just like at my actual job as an interpreter, many a time, it might not be the fact that the person can’t speak English but only because of the fact that they speak with a Cantonese accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) and the English speaker can’t understand because it’s of the accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum). Sometimes the Cantonese speaker that can speak English can actually understand English and comprehend it perfectly, it’s just when they open their mouths spitting out English words, the English speaking individual has no clue what they are saying, that’s when an interpreter like me will have to step in. Sometimes it’s the other way around, you know if you are in North America, not quite sure about other places, sometimes the companies will have their call centres in some other countries in Asia. I also have many occasions where I had to interpret, simply because the Cantonese English speaker could not understand the other party’s English accent口音(Dummy PY: How Yum). Certainly I can understand as the 3rd party how embarrassing the situation is for the English speaker with an accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum). But not to put the blame on anyone, having an accent is one thing, but the ability to understand another accent 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) is another issue, depending on how you look at the situation. Because I am totally assuming, a lot of us must have had people who speak your native language but with a different accent, and it just takes time for you to get used to it, right?

Trust me, I understand accents 口音(Dummy PY: How Yum) might be hard to adjust, but it is not impossible. Believe it or not, when I first started learning English, I learned it in the Hong Kong British accent because Hong Kong was a colony of Britain, formerly known as England. So to save the trouble of people not being able to understand what I am saying in North America, I just learned how to speak English with a more North American accent. Perhaps you could already tell from my previous episodes that my accent is messed up. The key to adjusting your accent口音(Dummy PY: How Yum), let it be Cantonese or any other language, is really to pay attention to that particular accent, how the local people or the native speakers of that region enunciate the vowels and the consonant. You can compare how you are saying it differently from the native speakers and just mimic and imitate from there. For me, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s effective communications, and sometimes I speak in a Hong Kong Cantonese English accent as well. Whatever is the easiest.

Vocabulary 詞彙 (Dummy PY: Chee Wui)

The next thing to note, if it was you that might be the reason why the other person decided to speak in your language, it might have something to do with your vocabulary 詞彙 (Dummy PY: Chee Wui). 詞 (Dummy PY: Chee) means words, usually in Cantonese or Chinese, it’s referring to the two-character words that mean a singular meaning. 彙 (Dummy PY: Wui)means a grouping of items. 詞彙 (Dummy PY: Chee Wui) means your collection or spectrum of vocabulary. To just say vocabulary you will say 詞語 (Dummy PY: Chee Yu) these are usually 2-character, 3-character words. For each individual single character, we call the character 字 (Dummy PY: Ji). It really depends on how you learn your Cantonese, who is it that you are learning from, say for example, what you are learning right now is the Hong Kong style Cantonese, so terms and phrases might be different from Cantonese speaking region to region. I will give you an example, in Hong Kong, usually for insurance in Cantonese we will say 保險 (Dummy PY: Bo Him), 保(Dummy PY: Bo) is short for 保護(Dummy PY: Bo Woo) meaning protect, 險(Dummy PY: Him) is short for 危險 (Dummy PY: Ngai Him)meaning danger or dangerous, so insurance is supposedly to protect you when you are in danger. However, in North America, it’s very common for people to call insurance 燕梳(Dummy PY: Yin Sor), you can’t break the word down it won’t make sense because 燕梳(Dummy PY: Yin Sor) is a created word from the English word Insurance, just the sound of it. 燕梳(Dummy PY: Yin Sor), if we were to break down the characters individually, it won’t make sense.燕 (Dummy PY: Yin) means the bird swallow, and 梳 (Dummy PY: Sor) means the comb for your hair. 燕梳 (Dummy PY: Yin Sor) is just the onomatopoeia of the word “insurance” in English. It’s quite interesting because I was chatting with a friend in Hong Kong about 燕梳 (Dummy PY: Yin Sor) insurance, she had no idea what I was talking about.

This is where the miscommunications might happen, Cantonese speakers might just be unfamiliar with the terms or vocab that you are speaking of, and just sort of assume that you are saying a word not accurately, so at this time they might just switch to a language that they assume you are comfortable with. I will give you an example, in Hong Kong we call erasers or in British English rubber 擦膠(Dummy PY: Chat Gow), 擦 (Dummy PY: Chat) means to rub or scrub, this is the first character of the term so this will be the descriptive character, 膠 (Dummy PY: Gow) means plastic, this is the second character of the term, so this would be the noun or item you are describing. For nouns, that generally how it works, first character being the description, second character is the item or category which forms a noun. However, in the mainland Chinese Cantonese version, instead of calling it 擦膠(Dummy PY: Chat Gow), they say 膠擦(Dummy PY: Gow Chat), in reverse, now to us Hong Konger, when they say 膠 (Dummy PY: Gow) as the first character, this becomes the description, meaning plasticy, and 擦 (Dummy PY: Chat) means as a noun, a brush. So if people haven’t really heard of this term before, they might assume you are talking about a brush that is made of plastic.

Do you call (English word) as (Cantonese word)? - 你係咪叫(English word) 做(Cantonese word)嫁? (Dummy PY: Neigh Hi My Gill [English word] Joe [Cantonese word] Ga?)

In order to be safe, when you are unsure about whether the term you are using is a term that they are familiar with you can always ask if they use this term in order not to have any confusion, you can say for example 你係咪叫insurance 做保險嫁? (Dummy PY: Neigh Hi My Gill Insurance Joe Bo Him Ga?) Meaning, do you call insurance 保險(Dummy PY: Bo Him) meaning insurance in Cantonese, of course, first the person you are speaking to should know the English term you are asking about, otherwise you will just run in circles. If vocabulary is your issue, I would suggest that you continue building your vocabulary, some ways could be to watch Cartoons, read comics, do stuff in Cantonese that you might enjoy, let it be taking Cantonese classes, cooking Cantonese food with Youtube video, whatever you can find joy is going to keep motivating your Cantonese learning.

Sentence structure

Now if you have already determined it’s none of the issues above, another reason might actually be your sentence structure. Cantonese speakers from different regions might be used to a particular sentence structure, and be thrown off when people use a different sentence structure. Say for example, back when I was in secondary school, there was a Cantonese speaking classmate from mainland China. Once he told us, 我個水樽整失咗。(Dummy PY: Ngo Gor Shui June Jing Sutt Jor) meaning my water bottle has been lost. 水樽 (Dummy PY: Shui June) means water bottle, 整 (Dummy PY: Jing) means make or do, 失 (Dummy PY: Sutt) means to lose, 咗 (Dummy PY: Jor) is the tense word in this sentence, it represents the -ed, past tense. So he was sort of the passive voice here if we understand it with English. Literally he said, my water bottle made lost. The Hong Kong Cantonese speaking classmates were all very confused. We all thought he said 我個水樽整塞咗。(Dummy PY: Ngo Gor Shui June Jing Suck Jor) meaning my water bottle has been jammed/ clogged. 塞 means to clog or to jam. That did not make any sense, how could he possibly jam his water bottle? You see, the words 失 and 塞 sound very similar. The only difference is in the ending consonants or sounds. 失 ends with a silent T and 塞 ends with a silent k. Hey Dummy, are you telling me Cantonese speakers can’t even distinguish between our own complicated tonal sounds? No, the only reason is, for Hong Kongers, usually if we want to say my water bottle is lost, you will say 我個水樽唔見咗。literally means my water bottle no see (past tense), which is to say my water bottle can no longer be seen, meaning lost it. Or if you want to start the sentence with I, using active voice, you can say 我整唔見咗我個水樽。(Dummy PY: Ngo Gor Shui June Jing Sutt Jor)again 整 means make or do. Literally I do no see (past tense) my water bottle. Basically to say I did something and lost my water bottle. But what my mainland Cantonese speaking classmate said was not wrong, it’s just Hong Kongers are not used to it. Sometimes the mainland version of the Cantonese can sound a bit like they are reading from a script, like it sounds very formal and like written Chinese. The reason he said 我個水樽整失咗。(Dummy PY: Ngo Gor Shui June Jing Sutt Jor) is because in Mandarin or in written Chinese, you would say 我的水瓶弄失了。(Dummy PY: Ngo Dick Shui Ping known Sutt Lew) what he said 我個水樽整失咗。(Dummy PY: Ngo Gor Shui June Jing Sutt Jor) is the exact same sentence structure as the written Chinese and Mandarin 我的水瓶弄失了。(Dummy PY: Ngo Dick Shui Ping known Sutt Lew) 水瓶 (Dummy PY: Shui Ping) is just the written Chinese way for saying 水樽 (Dummy PY: Shui June) water bottle. In a way, you can understand the mainland Cantonese is sort of a hybrid between Mandarin and Cantonese, whereas the Hong Kong Cantonese is more of a hybrid between Cantonese and English.

My point is, regardless of what language you speak, when you form Cantonese sentences, you are likely to have the tendency to form sentences with the sentence structures that you already know in your known languages. So again, really pay attention to how native Cantonese speakers form their sentences, you can then mimic and start replacing words with the correct verbs and nouns and all that stuff that you know once you get a hang of it. If regional sentence structures is your issue, I will suggest exposing yourself to as many different kinds of Cantonese as possible, compare how you speak with how they speak, note the differences and similarities. As well, if you encounter questions, you can always shoot me an email and I will try my best to get back to you, if not, your question might show up in one of my episodes.

OK, so if the problem doesn’t come from you, none of that applies, maybe the problem is from the other person. Now there are many reasons why they would suddenly speak with you in English. If you are in Hong Kong, people are usually rushing, 香港人好趕時間 (Dummy PY: Heung Gong Yan Ho Gone See Garn), 香港人 (Dummy PY: Heung Gong Yan) means Hong Kongers, 好 means good or very as an adverb here, 趕時間 (Dummy PY: Gone See Garn) literally means rushing time. Maybe to work, maybe to school, whatever their reason might be, but what we do know is that Hong Kongers are always rushing and catching up with time 趕時間 (Dummy PY: Gone See Garn). So to save your time and their time, they just want to quickly get the conversation done and move on. That’s one of the main reasons, if that happened to you, sorry about your experience. It’s kind of our Hong Kong cultural practice to rush 趕時間 (Dummy PY: Gone See Garn). You can ask them in this case, are you in a rush? 你係唔係趕時間? (Dummy PY: Neigh Hi Um Hi Gone See Garn?)

They might also want to be hospitable, seeing your Cantonese might not be your strongest language and they just want to accommodate you. There are also people that think that they can express themselves better in their second or third language which is English better than you can express with Cantonese. Of course, there is still a chance they truly don’t understand you or their hearing is not well. Another reason might be that the other Cantonese speaker actually feels more comfortable speaking English or equally comfortable speaking both languages. Or that person might not be a Cantonese speaker at all! Another reason might be, if you bumped into someone like my dad, some people like him would actually want to practice their English.

So my tip for you is, if the Cantonese speaker starts speaking English with you, you have 2 choices. Stick with them or go your own way. If you really want the other person to understand you in Cantonese, then you have to take your time, 慢慢講, 唔駛急。(Dummy PY: Marn Marn Gong, Um Side Gup) literally slow slow talk, no need to rush or be anxious. 急 (Dummy PY: Gup) means rush again, but 急(Dummy PY: Gup) also carries the emotion of anxiousness. First calm down and think about what you want to say in Cantonese, and how you want to say it. Take your time. Unless the person is checking or pointing at their watch, or maybe you can sense that the other person is already rushing you 催你 (Dummy PY: Chui Neigh). 催 (Dummy PY: Chui) is the action of someone rushing someone else. So we talked about 3 different terms for the word “rush” today, 趕時間 (Dummy PY: Gone See Garn) rushing and catching up with time; and 急 (Dummy PY: Gup) means to rush or be anxious. 催 (Dummy PY: Chui) is the action of one person rushing another person or people.

I want to speak Cantonese - 我想講廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Gong Gwong Dong Wa)

I want to practice Cantonese - 我想練廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Lean Gwong Dong Wa)

You can always choose to tell them you wish to speak Cantonese. 我想講廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Gong Gwong Dong Wa)literally I want talk Cantonese, or you can also say 我想練廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Lean Gwong Dong Wa) meaning you want to practice Cantonese. 練 (Dummy PY: Lean) is short for 練習 (Dummy PY: Lean Jap) meaning practice. For training or practicing to become more buff and fit, is 練大隻(Dummy PY: Lean Die Jack). 大隻(Dummy PY: Die Jack) means big in size.

I can speak Chinese - 我可以講中文 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Chong Men)

I can speak Cantonese - 我可以講廣東話 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Gwong Dong Wa)

You can also say 我可以講中文 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Chong Men) meaning I can speak Chinese or 我可以講廣東話 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Gwong Dong Wa) meaning I can speak Cantonese. Now in retrospect, maybe my cousin actually wanted to practice her Cantonese, you know, my embarrassing moment from the beginning of the episode! Finally you can say 你可以講廣東話, 我聽得明! (Dummy PY: Neigh Hoh Yee Gong Gwong Dong Wa, Ngo Tang Duck Ming) Meaning you can speak Cantonese, I can understand it by listening. 聽 (Dummy PY: Tang) means to hear or listen. 明 (Dummy PY: Ming) means understand. Or you can do what I do, just say “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”.


New York - 紐約 (Dummy PY: Noud Yurk)

Hong Kong - 香港 (Dummy PY: Heung Gong)

Accent - 口音 (Dummy PY: How Yum)

pronunciation - 發音 (Dummy PY: Fat Yum)

Tones - 聲調(Dummy PY: Sing Deal)

Sounds - 聲音 (Dummy PY: Sing Yum)

Far - 遠 (Dummy PY: Yun)

Circle - 圓(Dummy PY: Yun)

Spectrums of vocabulary - 詞彙(Dummy PY: Chee Wui)

Vocabulary - 詞語 (Dummy PY: Chee Yu)

Chinese characters - 字 (Dummy PY: Ji)

Eggs - 雞蛋 (Dummy PY: Guy Darn)

insurance - 保險 (Dummy PY: Bo Him)/ 燕梳(Dummy PY: Yin Sor) [ North American]

Protection/ Coverage - 保護(Dummy PY: Bo Woo)/ 保障 (Dummy PY: Bo Cheng)

Dangerous - 危險 (Dummy PY: Ngai Him)

Eraser/ rubber - 擦膠(Dummy PY: Chat Gow)/ 膠擦(Dummy PY: Gow Chat) [non-HK Cantonese]

Do you call (English word) as (Cantonese word)? - 你係咪叫(English word) 做(Cantonese word)嫁? (Dummy PY: Neigh Hi My Gill [English word] Joe [Cantonese word] Ga?)

Water Bottle - 水樽 (Dummy PY: Shui June)

Rushing/ catching up time - 趕時間 (Dummy PY: Gone See Garn)

Rushing and be anxious - 急 (Dummy PY: Gup)

Action of rushing someone - 催 (Dummy PY: Chui)

Talk slowly, no need to rush - 慢慢講, 唔駛急。(Dummy PY: Marn Marn Gong, Um Side Gup)

I want to speak Cantonese - 我想講廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Gong Gwong Dong Wa)

I want to practice Cantonese - 我想練廣東話。(Dummy PY: Ngo Seung Lean Gwong Dong Wa)

I can speak Chinese - 我可以講中文 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Chong Men)

I can speak Cantonese - 我可以講廣東話 (Dummy PY: Ngo Hoh Yee Gong Gwong Dong Wa)