Language schools in H.K. pushing American accents

Dialect thought to give youngsters better job prospects in future


Standing at the front of the classroom in Hong Kong, 9-year-old Charlotte Yan recites a 2008 speech by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — enunciating the words with a perfect American accent.

“Make sure we have a president who puts our country back on the path to peace, prosperity and progress,” says Yan, her brow furrowed as she concentrates intensely on her pronunciation.

She is one of a growing number of children in the ex-British colony learning to speak English like an American, some parents believing it is more relevant than an accent of the southern Chinese city’s former rulers.

Language tutors say wealthy mainlanders are helping fuel demand, crossing into Hong Kong for a pick of the myriad educational opportunities on offer in an increasingly competitive market.

During weekends at Yan’s school, Nature EQ — where a giant Stars and Stripes flag hangs on the wall — children as young as 5 pack into classrooms, chanting words in unison and reciting from memory Robert Frost poems, any error in their enunciation quickly corrected.

Mickey Ho, 15, said he goes to the school because an American accent is “more international” while 19-year-old Sam Yu attends because Hollywood films and popular television dramas make a U.S. lilt “easier to understand and learn.”

“I think the American accent is getting more and more important and is maybe taking over the dominance of British English, so I’m willing to learn,” Yu said.

Nature EQ in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong was set up 17 years ago, shortly before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. Then, only 40 pupils were enrolled but today the school is at maximum capacity with 350 attending.

A short distance away in the Tseung Kwan O district is the American English Workshop, which has gone from having 20 students a week when it opened 12 months ago to more than 180 today.

They are among a number of centers and tutors specifically providing American English, offering something different to government-run schools where pronunciation largely depends on the accent of the English teacher.

“I intend to send my sons to America for further study so I chose an American accent for them,” said Victor Chan, whose two boys — Jackie aged 10 and Samuel, 7 — attend Nature EQ.

“I think having an American accent is better for their employment (prospects) in Western countries,” the 50-year-old added.

Hong Kong recruitment consultant Adam Bell agrees that sounding American can help boost a candidate’s employability — particularly if the job is with a U.S. firm.

“There’s a degree of prestige associated with both the U.K. and the U.S. accents compared to a Hong Kong accent as it suggests they are from a good background and can afford to study at school or university abroad,” he said.

“In terms of employability, I think it largely depends on the background of whoever is doing the hiring.

“If he or she has a North American background I strongly believe someone with an American accent has a better chance of getting the job. Likewise with the U.K. accent.”

Experts say there are signs of a wider shift in attitudes toward accents in Hong Kong as the financial hub moves further away from its 150-year-long colonial past.

Dr. Qi Zhang of Dublin City University said there is evidence U.S. accents are “starting to replace” British ones in terms of preference “owing to the popularity of American culture.”

Acting Head of English at Hong Kong’s City University, Dr. Rodney Jones, said: “There’s no doubt that the American accent is becoming more prevalent here. The main reason is because people are more exposed to it.

“In the past in Hong Kong there was a sense that speaking in a British accent made you sound more educated.

“Now I think that’s changing and perhaps people think speaking in an American accent may have more ‘cultural capital.’ That is it may make you sound more contemporary, or modern, or may fit in with the international business world better.”

Word seems to be spreading to mainland China.

Tim Laubach — founder of American English Workshop — has increased the number of teachers at his school from one to eight since opening a year ago, to meet rising demand from across the border.

“We have noticed a large influx of mainland Chinese students,” he said.

“When we first opened last year we had zero students from the mainland but now at least 30 percent are from there. We expect that number to continue to grow.”

Back at Nature EQ, founder and co-owner Frankie Ng is delighted with his school’s progress.

“At first I had a very hard time, nobody was coming. But now it seems I am on the right track,” the 65-year-old said, the shelves in his office displaying models of America’s symbol, the bald eagle.

“The sound of the American-accent English is so defined and clear and easy to teach.”

But it would be premature to sound the death knell for the British accent just yet.

“I prefer the British accent. Sometimes I can’t understand an American one,” Riven Chan, a 28-year-old flight attendant, said.

“I think it’s better if Hong Kong people learn to speak English with a British or local accent.”

According to Jones at City University, Hong Kongers’ fondness for the United Kingdom means a British accent will remain popular.

“Many people here are nostalgic about the British,” he said.

“I don’t think they think of things like imperialism or colonialism when they hear a British accent.

“It still has a lot of prestige in Hong Kong and the bottom line is whatever accent you speak in, it has no actual reflection on your English proficiency or intelligence.”

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    All the Hong Kongers I know have neither British nor American accents. The overwhelmingly most popular accent there is a Chinese one. Something tells me this article’s author has a bit of an agenda…!!!

  • Willahelm Christóforos Baillif

    As a Brit, it breaks my heart when people learn English in an American accent. However, it’s a reality I have to face that it is not our language anymore. I just think we should build friendships with our European compatriots before they’re swept away to America as well.

  • Sad, I heard of this kind of thing. I understand the revulsion at some British language teachers. But have you heard how average Americans speak? You need to eat enough beef burghers to be able to do it, it comes down to pushing that. Man ist was Man isst?

    • Merica

      It’s not as if British English is some kind pure tongue passed down from on high.

      For example, Americans sure like their HAMburgers, because did you know “beef burger” isn’t even a real word? It’s an idiotic back formation that ignorant Brits came up with when confronted with such a complicated concept as: a beef patty that has “ham” in its name. No, hamburgers don’t contain ham – it’s really not complicated: “hamburgers” are named after a German town, Hamburg.

      Please don’t give me your linguistic chauvinism and ethnocentrism all while falling prey to one of the stupidest back formations I’ve ever heard of. I was shocked when I heard a Brit explain to me, “It’s beef burger, cuz there’s no ham in it.”

      • Willahelm Christóforos Baillif

        Jahaan’s comment is prejudicial (average Americans), and I was hoping your comment would point that out. But no, you had to go and do it as well (ignorant Brits). Not only did you fall prey to the very thing that made Jahaan’s comment lose credibility, you are completely wrong in the point you’re trying to make. Language evolves, and back-formations are part of that.

  • Casper Steuperaert

    No no no, if you teach schoolschildren, you teach them neutral British English! There is NO benifit from teaching someone American English

  • zer0_0zor0

    I would agree with some of that, but the main point of contention I have is that I don’t see anything much dserving of praise coming out of the UK, either. As far as academic publishing goes, the UK would seem to have nothing over the US, though both are falling quickly.

    The only people I can extend my gratitude to for their music in the UK is Radiohead, while there is indeed nothing in that genre in the USA, and even the one vibrant jazz scene is no more than memories. As far as I can tell, the commercial forces have taken control and corrupted, demoralized and destroyed culture as it existed in the USA. I would say that there was a revival in the 1980s, too, with independent labels and scenes coming into existence to challenge the drab and onerous fare being put out by the corporate rock major labels, etc.

    Am I missing something because I’m here in Japan and preoccupied with studying culture Japanese?

  • Christopher-trier

    Yes, it is increasingly vapid. I never quite felt comfortable in the USA because of that. Even if Americans are by and large pleasant people, they tend to be very superficial.

    The British are also very much interested in money. Rather, I think Americans are very good at selling themselves and people are often too lazy to look past one country. Another article in this newspaper discussed the Japanese government’s decision to increase the use of English on road signs. Some of the comments criticised it under the ground that if they wanted to see English they could go to the USA, as if that was the only country where the language was spoken.

  • Justin Lindsay

    How very sad, unimaginative and disingenuous.

  • Jrock

    God people are angry about this. Why do we need to resort to such horrible comments. You all sound like the French, 300 years ago. Move on.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    I fail to see how an accent is meant to add value to learning the English language. Will it automatically make you more “America” friendly? If anything, go with a neutral, London accent (and this differs too depending on the areas of the city). This is not representative of all the accents of Great Britain, but you would still be learning it in a manner closest to the language’s native roots. And even so, no non-native will ever speak in a manner akin to a native. And being exposed to both will certainly not throw a person into some great flux or improve one’s opportunities. I grew up in Namibia, where we have an accent that is not quite British, but close. And many Japanese have told me, “Your English accent is far easier to understand than the American accent, it is clear and pronounced.” To many non-native speakers, the American accent is quite hard to understand with its emphasized vowels and sing-song nature. I live in the US, so I am certainly not claiming one accent is better than the other (I have even started elongating my vowels to get by) – but what the author states seems contrary to what I have heard regarding the ease of understanding the British vs. American standard accents.

    • Christopher-trier

      One complaint that I have heard from non-English speakers about US English is how mushy it sounds, how slurred words often are. “Water” becomes “wodder”, “later” becomes “layder” etcetera. Interestingly enough, it’s similar to Mandarin spoken on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Mainland Mandarin tends to be sloppy and mushy sounding, thus more difficult for non-speakers to learn. Taiwanese Mandarin tends to be far crisper and clear.

  • Christopher-trier

    “Unintelligible, provincial gibberish” — how kind. By the same virtue Japanese who speak anything but standard Japanese speak unintelligible, provincial gibberish? English is a diverse language, especially in its homeland. That is not to be derided. Those who wish to communicate with English speakers are well-advised to acquaint themselves with multiple variations of the language. By the way, when I speak High German I speak with a Trierer accent, does that make me a Moselle bumpkin?

    • jeffrey takada

      My intent was not kindness, but to point out clearly that the reason British English has lost it’s edge is because they would rather turn inward and celebrate the diversity of the Cornish and Cockney that present the unified standard of pronunciation that is necessary for a language which aspires to world status. Since the British seem to have abdicated that, those who still see English as the default international language will seek a tutor that offers more uniformity. NHK broadcasts are not done in Akita-ben, nor are Der Speigel articles written in provincial German grammar forms. This is not to take away from the cultural legacies of provincial dialects but to explain why international learners, seeking the path of least resistance, now lean toward the American Inland North Dialect even though standard British vowels are easier to master than American ones.

      • Christopher-trier

        It’s far more complicated than that. In some regions of England a regional accent is more pronounced, Birmingham especially. In general, though, accents are heavily influenced by class. Received pronunciation is dominant in the middle and upper classes. Very few Scots, Welsh, or Northern Irish speak without a Brogue so that is a different matter. I suspect it has more to do with the vast amount of media the USA produces and its ability to market it extremely well. The USA is also a much larger country with an infinitely larger economy. It might lack the quality, but it certainly has the quantity. Perhaps that is also why by and large people studying Chinese learn simplified characters rather than the more aesthetically pleasing and meaningful traditional characters — mainland China is simply far larger.

  • Christopher-trier

    Perhaps, but US influence is waning globally and other English-speaking areas are rising. The tides come and go. I expect that in the future English will grow more and more decentralised and some varieties will evolve into different languages.