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How to Change Your Chinese Accent

Cantonese and Mandarin clients at Change Your Accent frequently ask our advice on the most effective ways to change their Chinese accents. Perhaps you’re curious about this too. Maybe you struggle to speak English clearly even though you've lived in North America for years. Most likely, your grasp of English is great but you can't always make yourself understood. Your accent might even limit your professional and social success, and affect your confidence and self-esteem.

Let's be clear: an accent should never hold anyone back! Especially when there are simple and effective ways to help. We're speech therapists and accent coaches and we know that with the right guidance and a bit of practice you can easily improve your speech, including your English pronunciation. Our eBook and video lessons, for example, can systematically show you how to change your accent. You've already done the hard work by learning English. Now it's time to focus on refining your skills so that your communication in English is an asset!

The first thing you should know is that all ESL speakers, including those who speak Cantonese or Mandarin, apply the sound and speech characteristics of their native language when learning English and English pronunciation. So to change an accent, you must figure out which of your native speech characteristics are interfering with your ability to speak English clearly. Next, you have to systematically change these characteristics. Once you make a few changes, you will be amazed at how much your speech improves. 

1. Focus on Intonation and Word Stress

In Chinese languages, pitch and word stress are very different than in English.  The same syllable in Cantonese and Mandarin can have different tones (which is almost like pitch), and this can change the meaning of the word. In English, the pitch doesn’t change the meaning of the word.  Take the word “me” in English.  You can change the pitch to ask a question (me?) or for emphasis (me!), but the meaning of the word stays the same.

Chinese clients must focus on practicing intonation and word stress in English to sound more like a native speaker.  Practice downward intonation for a statement and upward intonation for a question. Practice stressing different words in a sentence by making them longer and louder (e.g., Who ate the cake?  “John ate the cake” and "What did John eat?  “John ate the cake”).

2. Learn How to Say English Sounds and Don’t Substitute

Some English sounds don’t exist in Cantonese and Mandarin, and our clients often omit the sound or substitute one sound for another.  So we teach our clients first to hear the sounds and then to produce them.  The list below includes some of the main sounds to focus on learning, and the substitutions to avoid.  Practice saying sounds on their own first, then in single words and then in sentences.  It helps to find an native English speaker to give you feedback.

b, d, g, ch and j

v – don’t use f or w for a substitute

z – don’t use s as a substitute

sh (like SHip) – don’t use s as a substitute

r (like Red) – don’t use l as a substitute 

th ( like this and thin) – don’t use s, f or d as a substitute

3. Say the Final Consonants

There are only a few consonants used in final positions of words in Cantonese and Mandarin (e.g., n and ng).  In English, most of our consonants are used in final position of words, and far more of our words contain final consonants. Final consonants are essential for clarity and meaning, and you must learn to say  the final consonant sounds of words if you want change your accent. To practice, you can highlight the final sounds in a newspaper article  and try reading it aloud.

4. Figure Out Consonant Clusters

There are no consonant clusters (i.e., two consonants together such as br, st, dr, etc.)  in Cantonese and Mandarin.  Chinese speakers must learn to hear and say consonant clusters. Practice reading aloud words with consonant clusters.  Focus on common everyday words that you use often (e.g., if you live in San Francisco, you must learn to say the “Fr” in Francisco).

5. Practice Multisyllabic Words and Linking

In Chinese languages words are monosyllabic.  As a result, speech sounds choppier. Cantonese and Mandarin speakers must learn how to say multisyllabic words. They must also learn to link words so that that speech flows together.  Practice listening to a newscaster on the TV and try to copy them.  

For a full phonemic inventory on Cantonese and Mandarin, check out the American Speech-Language Hearing Association website. 

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