Standing at the front of the classroom in Hong Kong, nine-year-old Charlotte Yan recites a 2008 speech by Hillary 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 that wealthy mainlanders are helping to 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 five 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 US 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 Hong Kong’s Kowloon area 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, seven — attend Nature EQ.
BETTER FOR EMPLOYMENT
“I think having an American accent is better for their employment [prospects] in Western countries,” continued the 50-year-old.
Hong Kong recruitment consultant Adam Bell agrees that sounding American can help boost a candidate’s employability — particularly if the job is with a US firm.
“There’s a degree of prestige associated with both the UK and the US 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 told AFP.
“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 UK accent.”
Experts say there are signs of a wider shift in attitudes towards 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 US accents are “starting to replace” British ones in terms of preference “owing to the popularity of American culture.”