Cantonese is a variation of the Chinese language spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China, It is a tonal language. This means that pitch changes and movement will impact word meaning. Cantonese has 6 tonal patterns whereas English does not require the nuance. Typically the only meaningful change in English is regarding a rising pitch which indicates a question (e.g. "Are we there yet?").
Here are 8 things to think about to make your English accent easier to understand. It is not an extensive list but it addresses some key issues.
1. No consonant clusters
Cantonese does not have consonant clusters (a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel e.g. spring, please) at the beginning or end of a word. Cantonese-speakers may instead drop a consonant (e.g. 'pease' for 'please') or add an extra vowel (e.g. 'pelease' for 'please').
2. No word-final /p,t,k/
Cantonese-speakers do not have an aspirated word-final voiceless stop consonants /p,t,k/. Instead, these consonants are never released and are much shorter. This means that even if their mouth makes the /p/ shape, English speakers may not hear it (e.g. 'beep' --> 'bee'). In English, words that end in /p,t,k/ will release a puff of air with the release of the consonant.
*Try holding tissue paper near your lips and say "Put it up on top"*
3. Th- Sounds
Cantonese-speakers do not have voiceless or voiced fricatives (aka voiced or voiceless th- sounds) in their sound repertoire. Instead, they replace the th- sound with /f/ or /d/. (e.g. 'one, two, three' --> 'one, two, free' and 'that' --> 'dat')
4. /l/ and /n/ are different sounds
In Cantonese /l/ and /n/ are used interchangeably at the beginning of words. In English, they change the entire meaning of the word (e.g. 'low' and 'no'). The difference in how the sounds are made is that /n/ has air escape through the nose and /l/ has air escape through the mouth.
The /b, d, v, g, z/ sounds does not exist in Cantonese. The voiceless counterparts to each (/p/ for /b/, /t/ for /d/, /k/ for /g/ and /s/ for /z/) do exist in Cantonese, but vocal cord vibration is required for the voiced sounds. Your throat needs to vibrate to make these sounds. Put your hand on your throat to feel the difference between "sss" (like a snake) and "bzzz" (like a bee).
6. Lack of tense differentiation
In Cantonese, there are no references to past, present, and future as well as the nuances of simple, continuous and perfect in the syntax of a sentence. Cantonese verbs do not change to reflect references to time frames. Instead, a phrase is added to give reference to time in Cantonese (e.g. "He go"佢去 vs. "He tomorrow go"佢聽日去). So errors to look out for with Cantonese English speakers include proper tense (e.g. "He goes to the supermarket" vs. "He go to the supermarket".)
7. Word endings
In English, it is important to pronounce all the sounds, especially at the end of words. If there is an -s, -t, -d, -ing, -ed, you need to make sure it isn't forgotten. Keep in mind to not add extra sounds either (e.g. 'mixed' does not become 'mixded').
Sometimes, Cantonese English speakers unnecessarily add an extra vowel sound at word-endings when trying to emphasize word-ending consonants (e.g. "orange" --> "orangu", "girl" --> "girlu", "miss"--> "missy", "fax"-->"faxsi"). Try to say all the sounds in the word and nothing more.
Check out the following exercise sheet to practice some of these words.