Background of China English and Hong Kong English

In the 1980s, Kachru came up with his classic three circles model of World English,  which describes the new Englishes  “in terms of three concentric circles representing the types of spread, the patterns of acquisition and the functional domains in which English is used across cultures and languages” (Kachru, 1985, p. 242). His classic three circles model includes (Kachru, 2005): 

  • Inner Circle, which consists of the traditional English speaking countries like Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia
  • Outer Circle, which consists of the places which had a colonial link with Britain or the USA and have now adopted English as an official language, like Singapore, India, and the Philippines
  • Expanding Circle, which includes the countries which have no colonial link to Britain or the USA but now use English as a foreign language, such as China, Japan, Germany and Brazil                     

Over the past decades, the development of English varieties in Mainland China and Hong Kong has caused plenty of interest at different levels. An ever-expanding number of proficient English speakers in Mainland China and Hong Kong makes people believe that “Hong Kong English” (HKE)  (Schnelder, 2007) and “China English” (CE(Ge, 1980, p.2) will possibly become new varieties of English that will be socially accepted with their independent identities. 

Hong Kong English (HKE)

The term “Hong Kong English” refers to the English spoken by native Hong Kongers with its special accent and characteristics. It is primarily spoken by those whose first language is Cantonese and it is often considered as the Hong Kong variant of China English. According to Kachru’s model, the line between Outer Circle or Expanding Circle is not always clear in Hong Kong. Like an institutionalized ‘Outer Circle’ variety, English in Hong Kong has a legal status as an official language and the written form is widely used in various contexts, such as governmental documents and public notices.

The legitimacy of ‘Hong Kong English’ as a recognized new variety of English is a matter of heated debate and frequent controversy, but no one can doubt that Hong Kongers speak English with an identifiable accent and “share a common underlying phonological system, regardless of whether HKE is characterized as an ‘interlanguage’’ or a ‘new variety’’ of English” (Hung, 2000, p1).

The phonological features of Hong Kong English have caused plenty of interest in both Hong Kong and overseas over recent decades (e.g. Luke and Richards, 1982; Bolton and Kwok, 1990; Hung, 2000; Stibard, 2004; Deterding et al, 2008). One of the earliest studies on HKE phonology was done by Luke and Richards (1982). In this study, they investigated and listed some distinctive phonological features of HKE, such as the substitution of /n/ for /l/ in initial position and /w/ for /v/. Other common features of HKE suggested by previous studies include lack of length contrast in vowels, absence of voicing contrast in fricatives, L-vocalization, monophthonization of diphthongs, syllable-timed rhythm, etc.

If you are interested in these pronunciation features of Hong Kong English, please go to Read More for more details.

China English (CE)

China is a multicultural country  where a large number of dialects are spoken, including eight major dialect groups “Northern Chinese (also known as Mandarin), Wu, Hsiang, Kan, Hakka, Northern Min, Southern Min, and Yueh (Chang, 1987).  As Kirkpatrick (2007) argued, speakers of China English come from all over China and have different accents because of  the influence from different home dialects. However,many previous studies (e.g. Chang, 1987; Deterding, 2006) suggested that there are also some common features that are  shared by Chinese speakers of all native dialects, like

  • absence of length contrast in vowels,
  • insertion of schwa in consonant clusters,
  • substitution of dental fricative sounds (i.e. /θ/ in “thanks” and /ð/ in “them”),
  • vocalization of black/l/

If you are interested in these pronunciation features of China English, please go to Read More for more details.

In the following parts, we will compare the phonological system of English, with Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese respectively and discuss the possible reasons behind the pronunciation features in China English and Hong Kong English.



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