The chameleon-like accent of the expat child

Somewhere between punting on the River Cam and crossing Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry she re-discovered her “r” sound.

The accent shift has already begun its swing.

Three years ago, within weeks of starting nursery in the UK, my expat kid was already speaking like an “English” girl, in accent: “to-mah-to,” “ba-nah-na;” and word choice: “knickers,” “loo,” “tea” (for dinner), and “home-time” (end of the school day).

She’s been in school here in Hong Kong for six weeks and change is afoot.

She firmly claims to speak “American-ish,” but what I hear emerging is an interesting mix of American and Australian with a dash of Cantonese-accented English. A sort of Asian-international school accent, I suppose.

But most striking of all is that the “r” sound at the end of her words has firmly returned; think of words like butter, art and here. This is a sound she’d clipped in England that has now roared back.

These little expat chameleons learn and change quickly. She’s adapted her speech, learned a whole new school’s worth of rules and “ways of doing things” and I still haven’t unpacked the books or found the local post office.

20 responses to “The chameleon-like accent of the expat child

      • They (we too at that age – wish I could remember!) are amazing to watch at that age, and so good to learn from. It must be very exciting for you all.
        Is it a good day for a spin down your favourite piece of road? Here, It’s a glorious, almost sunny day, with skudding clouds and a skittish breeze – perfect for a windy scenic drive with the hood down!

      • Stuck close to home today, but Monday the littlest one and I did get the chance to cruise down my favorite stretch of road. It was heavenly.

  1. I once had an employee who is Taiwanese, lived in Queens, NY from Junior High till she graduated college. She is over 30 years old now with 3 kids. Her English is a mixture of Taiwanese-Queens-Bronx accents and her Chinese is a mix of Queens-Bronx-Taiwanese accents.

  2. Do you ever find yourself picking up on the accent there? Or dropping certain words? I used to catch myself doing it in Korea! I’d pause suddenly after realizing it and wonder if the person I was talking to thought I was mocking them or just plain strange.

  3. Funny and familiar! We are Americans living in Armenia, teaching at an international school. Our 4 year-old has grown up here, learning English from us and his Armenian nannies and teachers, and of course his international schoolmates. Now that his grandparents are visiting, he is picking up some American expressions he’s never heard before, and none of our relatives in the US or the Philippines can quite put their finger on his accent!

    • I suppose everything (accents, word choices, etc) are just all things to be absorbed and used as it suits their fancy. What an open way of seeing and experiencing the world. Armenian/American/Philippine must be a striking accent combination!

    • Hi Angela, I know I’m replying to a very old post but I don’t have much choice. My family and I will be moving to Yerevan this summer, I have a 5 year old and an 8 year old. Are there any summer camps in Yerevan, is there a social club for expats where we can meet others in a similar situation and/or hopefully exchange information and be better for it?

      Anything will help. Thank you in advance.

  4. My children switch their vocabulary quickly too. Once we are back in the US they will say “elevator” instead of “lift.” They swim in the “sea” here and talk on their “hand phone” but back home they swim in the “ocean” and talk on a “cell phone.” I love how fast they can switch depending on who they are talking to.

    • It was a surreal day: our first time on the Star Ferry since returning to this part of the world with our daughter three years older and her new little brother in tow…

    • We’ve moved too much for her to really pick up a second language well, but her speech is British-tinged English and she understands some Dutch and some Mandarin Chinese.

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