Phonological features of Hong Kong English : patterns of variation and effects on local acceptability

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


The changing dynamics of international communication in English have led to a intense questioning of the relevance of native-speaker pronunciation models in language teaching and testing. In addition, the World Englishes approach to local varieties has increased their level of recognition. Both of these developments suggest that English pronunciation models need to be reviewed, and Hong Kong represents an interesting case study. Although it has been claimed that Hong Kong English is at the ‘nativization’ stage, the existence of exonormative attitudes towards English is also well known. Two important questions arise from this inherent tension, neither of which has been intensively addressed in previous studies. Firstly, although many of the features of Hong Kong English pronunciation have been described, patterns of inter-speaker variation have not been investigated in detail. Secondly, the attitudes of Hong Kong English users towards the phonological features of their own variety have not been studied in ways that take account of such variation.

This dissertation addresses both of these questions by being features-based in approach and using local listeners to evaluate accent samples. After an initial review of the features of Hong Kong English pronunciation, a preliminary study surveys the occurrence of consonantal phonological features within a mini-corpus of speech samples taken from local television programmes. Its findings are presented in the form of an implicational scale, which not only shows the relative frequencies with which different features occurred, but also indicates the existence of implicational patterns of co-occurrence. In the main study, twelve authentic accent samples (eleven Hong Kong speakers and one British speaker) were presented to 52 first-year undergraduate students for evaluation as to their acceptability, defined here as acceptability for pedagogical purposes.

Multivariate statistical analysis discovered firstly that phonological ‘errors’, as marked by the student listeners, were the most important measured factor in determining the acceptability scores, and secondly that only certain types of ‘error’ or ‘feature’ had significant effects. These features were either related to L1 transfer or involved other salient phenomena such as idiosyncratic alterations to syllable structure. The explanatory part of the study includes acceptability as one of the factors determining feature persistence, in an ‘ecological’ or ‘evolutionary’ model of L2 phonology acquisition and development that combines the findings of the preliminary and main studies. Among the other factors that determine feature persistence or disappearance, salience, intelligibility and markedness are invoked as important influences.

The acceptability data also has pedagogical implications, in that local listeners did not give the British accent the highest acceptability rating. This contrasts with the findings of previous studies regarding the pedagogical acceptability of the Hong Kong English accent. However, the features-based approach indicates that only certain types of local accent were acceptable to these listeners, and that these accents were more, rather than less, ‘native-like’. In various ways, the study contributes to an understanding of accent variation and acceptability within a new variety of English.
Date of Award2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorRoger BERRY (Supervisor) & Judy HO (Co-supervisor)

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