When English Meets Cantonese: A Melding of the Minds

James Zhan

English is non-tonal, meaning no matter how you change the tone of a word, the word’s meaning will not change.

I was born in Canton, China, where Cantonese is the primary language, but my mother raised me bilingually with English and Cantonese. No one did that in my hometown, but my mother was learning English before, during and after I was born, so I was exposed to it daily; when I was picking up on Cantonese, my mother started teaching me English as well. These two languages are now my primary languages, the ones I alternate between depending on where I am living. Since my earliest years, I have always been fascinated by how vastly different they are, both in terms of speaking and writing. In many ways they are the exact opposites: they exist on polar ends of the tone versus non-tone spectrum. I grasped this instinctively growing up bilingual but now, reading through the literature on the topic, I have come to see how the differences between Cantonese and English affected my acquisition of both.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics defines a “tone language” as “[o]ne in which units within words are distinguished phonologically by a distinct tone or sequence of tones” (“tone language”). Cantonese is a striking example of a tone language: one Chinese character can have up to seven different meanings. For example, the pronunciation “si” can mean “poem,” “history,” “try,” “time,” “city,” “yes,” and “lose (money),” each expressed through different tones (Chu, Taft and Chu 58). In total, Cantonese has nine tones used in verbal conversation: tone 1 has the highest pitch while tone 6 has the lowest pitch; tone 7, 8 and 9 are “stopped” tones, descending in pitch as well (see figure 1) (58).

nine tones in cantonese
Figure 1 Nine tones in Cantonese (Chu, Taft and Chu 58)

Cantonese is extremely hard to speak correctly due to its tonally complicated nature. Even though it is made up of nine distinct tones, many of them are quite similar; it would be extremely hard for an English speaker to learn to speak all these tones correctly, as one sentence will often use all nine. Even now, there are many characters that I am pronouncing incorrectly, some I was not even aware of until I researched the phonology of Cantonese. Unsurprisingly, even though there is one “correct” pronunciation for a character in the dictionary, there is sometimes more than one way of saying it, depending on where you grew up. For example, in English, “answer” has two main pronunciations: the British one and the American one. In Cantonese, the standard pronunciation of “教堂” (church) is “gaau3 tong2,” which means the first character should be spoken with tone 3 and the second with tone 2, as depicted in figure 1. However, in my hometown, we pronounce it as “gaau3 tong4.” More confusingly, a character can be pronounced in three different ways and still have the same meaning. For instance, although the meanings of the character “知” in “知識” (knowledge), “知道” (know something) and “知唔知” (do you know…) are all the same, which is “to know,” it can be pronounced as “zi1” for each instance, or as “zi3,” “zi1” and “zi8” for each instance respectively, depending on where you grew up.

There are even variations in pronunciation among Cantonese-speaking groups. I have noticed from watching Cantonese and Hong Kong news that although in Canton (Guangzhou), the birthplace of Cantonese, people still speak the language with the traditional nine-tone system, people in Hong Kong speak it with only six tones—the contemporarily correct way. In fact, whether Cantonese has six or nine tones is a source of controversy between traditional and contemporary Chinese linguists, because tones 7, 8 and 9 have “the same pitch height and contour” as tone 1, 3 and 6 respectively (58). As a fluent Cantonese speaker, I think the three stopped ones—tones 7, 8 and 9—should be separated from the other six because even though some of them have the same pitches, they are pronounced in slightly different ways.

The English language, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Cantonese. English is non-tonal, meaning no matter how you change the tone of a word, the word’s meaning will not change. English is also an intonation contour language, which means while tone cannot change the meaning of a word, changing the intonation when speaking can alter the meaning of the sentence. For example, a speaker can turn a statement, such as “I should have known better,” into a question by raising the pitch at the end of the sentence. Some linguists also regard English as a stress language, because by stressing different words in a sentence, speakers can express different meanings as well. For example, “I should have known better,” with the stress on “I,” indicates that the speaker means to say they are the one who should have known better, not whoever they are talking to, while “I should have known better” indicates that the speaker is blaming themselves for not knowing better.

Intonation contouring like in these examples is, albeit possible, much less frequently done in Cantonese because changing the pitch would mean completely changing the meaning of the character as well. Because of this, one of my biggest challenges in learning English was trying not to sound flat and robotic. To force intonation contouring to become a natural thing for me when speaking English, my mother asked me not only to imitate how Americans speak English, but also to exaggerate their intonation contours. Because I did this for daily training, a good amount of intonation contours stayed with me. With time, I started to perform the intonations when I was speaking English without having to exaggerate them consciously.

Unsurprisingly, the differences between Cantonese and English lay deeper than just on a linguistic level: whether or not a language is tonal actually affects how the speaker’s brain processes the language. The brain’s left hemisphere is long believed to be used for language comprehension, while the right hemisphere is thought to have nothing to do with language, but to be used for processing tone and pitch (Kuo). However, a study has found that Chinese speakers, which includes Cantonese speakers, use not only the left hemisphere, but also the right for language comprehension (Kuo). Another study has also discovered that English speakers rely much more heavily on “phonological information, or sounds rather than tones” (Taylor). Because of this fundamentally drastic difference in how the brain processes language and pitch separately, I encountered more difficulties pronouncing English words than Cantonese words when I was small, especially when I did not live in an English-speaking environment.

Most English learners from or in China experience the same difficulties learning non-tone languages—even those who are English teachers. They tend to take on a heavy accent that makes them sound unnatural, flat and robotic when speaking English because they do not know how to practice intonation contouring, or simply are not aware of the concept. Perhaps imitating and exaggerating the British or American way of speaking English, like my mother asked me to do, would help them sound more like native English speakers. Similarly, many people whose first language is a non-tone language find it very hard to speak a tone language properly because their brains are not accustomed to engaging the right hemisphere in language comprehension; however, like tone language speakers practising language contouring, if non-tone speakers concentrate on the tones and try to practice speaking them correctly, their brain might eventually get used to working with the left hemisphere to process language.

In application, I think that examining the differences between Cantonese and English can help a Cantonese or English learner recognize specific areas that they should focus on so they are not approaching the language without any learning strategies. For someone like me who already speaks both, it provides further insights into the process I went through to learn them, and even into how my brain functions as a bilingual individual, switching between the left and right hemispheres depending on whether I am analyzing pitch or intonation contour. They are certainly two extreme cases of tone and non-tone languages, but as only two among the numerous languages in the world, the differences between Cantonese and English show only the tip of the iceberg into how the minds of different language speakers function. The languages we learn require our brains to process information in a certain way; they influence how we think and how we shape our own identity. Learning about languages is, therefore, learning about ourselves.

About the author

_DSC0348 Edited-3James Zhan was a co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Inventio. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Professional Writing in spring 2018, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Information Science at the University of Toronto.





Editor: Madelaine Pries

Works Cited

Chu, Patrick, Marcus Taft and Kau Chu. “Are There Six or Nine Tones in Cantonese?”     August 2011. Research Gate,           https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267544978_ARE_THERE_SIX_OR_NI            NE_TONES_IN_CANTONESE. Accessed 17 October 2016.

Grasu, Diana. “Tonal vs. Non-Tonal Languages: Chinese vs. English.” 24 June 2015, Lexington,http://www.lexington.ro/en/blog/item/29-tonal-vs-non-tonal-languages-chinese-vs-english.html. Accessed 18 October 2016.

Kuo, Lily. “Chinese Speakers use more of their brain than English speakers.” Quartz, 27 February 2015, https://qz.com/351392/chinese-speakers-use-different-regions-of-their-brain-than-english-speakers/. Accessed 18 October 2016.

Taylor, Larry. “If you speak Mandarin, your brain is different.” The Conversation, 24 February 2015, http://theconversation.com/if-you-speak-mandarin-your-brain-is-different-37993. Accessed 22 October 2016.

Matthews, P. H. “tone language.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2007, Oxford Reference  http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/view/10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001/acref-9780199202720-e-3439. Accessed 30 September 2017.

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