Wai Lan talks about her determination to receive a good education.
Wai Lan Liu (1953/12/26 - Hong Kong; female, Housing Worker)
C900/18582 © BBC

Transcript for Sheldon

Wai Lan: Uhm, my own schoolday, uhm, in my days, uhm, to the Chinese they did not send the girls to school. They will not investigate [sic], invest the money in, uhm, educating the girls, you know, uhm, that was the culture in those days. So my grandmother did not send me to school and, uhm, but fortunately next to our house there was a missionary school and there was a missionary couple. And the wife saw me sitting by the door every day not going to school. And then she said to my grandmother, “Why didn’t you send your granddaughter to school?” Uhm, she say, “I did not have any money.” And then she said, “Don’t worry,” uh, “about money. Just send your granddaughter to our school and we will look after her school fee.” Because in Hong Kong in those days, uhm, nineteen-sixties, early sixties there was no free education and you have to pay. Uhm, and then the school, uh, find a sponsor for me. So the sponsor provide my primary education. Uhm, but the school was in the walled city: uh, one of the very, very poorest, uh, area in Hong Kong. And there is no regulation in there, so, uhm, I could not sit the public exam for, uhm, to enter on to uhm, decent secondary school. And then when I finish my primary education, uhm, then my grandma thought that, “That’s it,” you know, “now is the time you go to work in the factory to earn your own money.” Uhm, but to me I didn’t want to end up working in the factory, so I went to my uncle and I ask my uncle and I say, “I want to, uh, go onto secondary education,” uhm, “can you pay for my school fee?” Uh, because I know my father, uh, used to been the, uhm, head figures in the family, because my grandfather died when he was fairly young and my father was the eldest son in the family; he used to look after his mum and all the youngest brothers and sisters and he educate my uncle. So when he died I remember my uncle said to me say, he has make a promise to my father to look after his two daughter. So because I remember that, so I went back to my uncle and I say, “I want secondary education.” And then he say, “Yes, uhm, if you can find a secondary school take you I will pay the fee.” But that time I was only thirteen years old and I have no help and no counselling and no one help me how to look for a school. So I walk out to the, uhm, city, to Kowloon to the city and walk along the High Street looking for a school for myself at thirteen years old with the school report in my hand.

Commentary for Sheldon

First generation accents

Most people would immediately recognise that aspects of Wai Lan’s speech betray her linguistic background. Listen, for example, to the way she pronounces the consonant sounds <v, r> when they appear at the start of a syllable, and <l> when it appears at the end of a syllable. Like many speakers from Hong Kong, Wai Lan frequently uses a <w> sound in all these cases. Listen particularly to her pronunciation of the words invest, provide, regulation and remember and to the way she pronounces a syllable final <l> on the words school, girls, culture, couple, walled, uncle, eldest, old and help. In some cases she actually deletes the <l> sound altogether (school fee), while in other cases she replaces it with a vowel sound or a sound that closely resembles <w>. This is a process known as L-vocalisation and is an instantly recognisable feature of Chinese English.

Finally listen to the way Wai Lan pronounces word-final consonants. Cantonese does not allow certain consonant sounds to appear at the end of words or in certain combinations with each other, and many speakers transfer this rule to their English pronunciation. Listen to the way Wai Lan deletes the final consonant in the words send, poorest, didn’t, old and help. In omitting the <p> in help and vocalising the <l>, she therefore on one occasion produces a sound a little like ‘heuw’, which sounds distinctively Chinese. She also uses a <s> sound for the final consonant in the word Chinese and substitutes a glottal stop for the final consonants in each of the words in the phrases did not and could not.

East Asian grammar

In addition, Wai Lan uses a number of grammatical constructions that are typical of speakers of English from East Asia, such as the lack of past tense markers on verbs. Listen, for instance, to the following statements: she say I did not have any money; there was no free education and you have to pay; then the school find a sponsor for me; so the sponsor provide my primary education; so I went to my uncle and I ask my uncle and I say, "I want to go on to secondary education"; he educate my uncle; he has make a promise to my father to look after his two daughter; I went back to my uncle and I say, "I want secondary education," and then he say, "Yes" and no-one help me how to look for a school. She also seldom observes the rule of singular-plural concord that exists in English – ‘one dog / two dogs’. Listen, for instance, to the following statements: one of the very, very poorest area_ in Hong Kong; he has make a promise to my father to look after his two daughter_ and my father used to been the head figures in the family. Cantonese is a tonal language with words generally consisting of only one syllable. Where English and other European languages make use of suffixes to change the grammatical content of a word – ‘play / plays / playing / played or friend / friendship / friendly / friendliness’ etc. – Chinese languages express this by using the same word pronounced with a different pitch or tone. So it is not surprising that speakers from a Chinese background often omit these grammatical signals in their spoken English.


Wai Lan demonstrates perfectly the instantly recognisable accent of a first generation speaker from East Asia. She is fluent in English, but her accent betrays traces of interference from her first language – probably Cantonese. Fascinatingly, many speakers who are completely fluent in a second language find that their accents are often influenced by the sound patterns of their first language unless they have been exposed to the second language early enough in their childhood. Pronouncing a sound or series of sounds is incredibly complex – it involves deeply automatic processes, requiring minute adjustments of the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate and vocal cords. This process is acquired up to the age of about twelve and although we continue to adapt our speech as we grow, certain processes become automatic reflexes and it becomes very difficult to change them.