by Xiuhua Shi, PhD student

Dr. Lisa Lim is a member of the research and teaching staff as well as coordinator of the language and communication programme in the School of English of The University of Hong Kong. She is an international scholar from Singapore who has made seminal achievements in the study of Singapore English and Asian Englishes. She has studied and worked in several countries and has been awarded many research and teaching grants as a successful researcher and teacher. She is also rewarded with a wonderful family and a very lovely son, which can be the most admirable achievement of all to most people. Is she just lucky, or has there been more behind her good fortune? We are greatly honoured to have Dr. Lim with us today to share her stories with us. 


Dr. Lim, I’ve heard that you have travelled and lived in many different parts of the world. Which countries/places impressed you the most and how do these experiences relate to your life and career?

I have been so fortunate to have been able to experience many cities and countries for work and for pleasure. I can only mention a few here.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) is where I did my BA Hons and where I returned to as lecturer after my PhD, so those were my formative years, and many of my teachers – who then became colleagues and good friends – influenced my interest and learning especially in sociolinguistics and in Singapore English (SgE). I was given many opportunities, as junior faculty, for development – in teaching, in running research projects, in publishing, in administration and conference organisation – and those were wonderful, exciting, learning years. Singapore is also where I got together with Umberto Ansaldo, now my husband, when he arrived to take up a position in the department (and we were for some months the department’s source of scandal and gossip!).

Before that, my PhD years in the UK opened up my world, both intellectually and socially, and the University of Reading trained me well in the field of phonetics and prosody. The years in Amsterdam really got to us because of the terribly grey, damp and low North Sea climate – I’m a tropical Asian girl: I need warmth and sunshine! – but they were incredible years for me for developing intellectually, in particular in the areas of language contact and creole studies, as the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is one of the foremost in the field. The research and collaboration with colleagues in UvA and other universities during those years — and of course the continuing intellectual and emotional inspiration I get from Umberto — definitely influenced and continues to influence my thinking and research in New Englishes, and I’m convinced we have to come at it from a contact perspective. The collaboration and networks – and friendships – formed during those years endure to this day.

I am glad all your overseas studies paid off, especially with the valuable gift of a great husband! Dr. Lim, could you tell us what your research interests are and which aspects of your research do you find the most enjoyable or challenging?

My main thing is New Englishes, especially Asian Englishes, and I tend to work in the ecology paradigm – when investigating the linguistic structure of a contact variety, I like to include a careful examination of sociohistorical information, which tells us about external factors such as immigration patterns or language policies, which determine which communities and thus which languages were more dominant in the ecology during a particular period, which then means greater representation of features from those language varieties in the feature pool and thus greater likelihood of selection in the emergence of the new contact variety. Such an approach recognises that ecologies can be tremendously diverse, and also very dynamic, changing over different periods. I am fortunate to have been awarded an RGC GRF grant for a project on precisely this.

One of the aspects I find exciting about some New Englishes is that they have evolved to have tone – SgE, Hong Kong English (HKE), Nigerian English, as well as second-learner varieties such as Chinese learners of English, all show High (level) tones on stressed or accented syllables of the word or phrase (except SgE, where the H tone is word-/phrase-final, which is the result of the influence from Baba Malay/Peranakan English). So it’s fantastic being in Hong Kong, because it allows me to focus on and think about this more, both in HKE as well as in the emerging Englishes of China (which my PhD student Shi Xiuhua is working on). It’s not just fun to see tone in English varieties; it’s also significant for linguistic theory, as it forces us to reconsider traditional classifications, like intonation languages vs tone languages, or Asian vs African Englishes, or Outer Circle vs Expanding Circle Englishes. Such categories are good for certain things. But when we are examining linguistic structure, we need to look at the structure, and we need to look at the ecology. And we will find that such categorisations fall away. We see that some Asian Englishes and some African Englishes share features because of the typologies of their substrates (e.g. they have tone language substrates). We have to question what is traditionally meant by a tone language, and accept that some New Englishes can be tone languages (as I have strenuously argued!).

I have been working on Singapore English (SgE) for the longest time, and more recently have turned my attention to the Peranakan community in Singapore. The Peranakans are the descendants of southern Chinese merchants and traders who settled in the region and intermarried with local Malay/Indonesian women, and who show cultural and linguistic hybridity – in linguistic circles they are best known for their vernacular Baba Malay, which is a restructured variety of Malay showing Sinitic influences. They are a fascinating community because in many ways they are a community of Singapore’s past, who saw their glory days during the British colonial period, yet they have played a significant role in the development of SgE. The Peranakans were the earliest and more permanent settlers, which meant that they became very established economically. They were absolutely pro-British – known as the “King’s Chinese” – and were amongst the elite minority who received English-medium education. All this meant that their linguistic features (from Baba Malay and Peranakan English) were most likely to have been dominant in the feature pool during the time SgE was evolving, and some of their linguistic features – notably word- and phrase-final pitch prominence – have persisted and are a characteristic feature of current-day SgE. I think the evidence for the role of the Peranakans as a founder population in the evolution of Singapore English is indeed compelling. I love it when all the threads of a story – the sociohistorical facts, the linguistic structure – all come together; it’s like cracking a puzzle. And working on the Peranakans is additionally gratifying because that’s my heritage – so not only do I have access to the community and to some out-of-print material, but I was even making data recordings – during lunches at my grandparents’ place, gatherings of the grandaunts during Chinese New Year – years ago, long before I ever started working on this formally. It’s truly serendipity when everything comes together.

So your origins lie in the Peranakans and your ancestors have contributed to the features of Singapore English today. That’s very interesting. What research are you working on now? What would you like to focus your research on in the future?

In addition to work on Asian Englishes in general, and the situations of Singapore, and the Peranakans, I also work in the field of language endangerment. Some years ago, my partner and colleague Umberto Ansaldo and I ran a documentation project on Sri Lanka Malay (SLM), which evolved for us into work on maintenance and revitalization. It was a very instructive, fulfilling and humbling experience working with the SLM community, and we are still very much in touch with several of them.

From a more current and local perspective, I am in the midst of putting together a website on linguistic minorities of Hong Kong (see, which I was awarded a Knowledge Exchange project grant for in 2012/13 (and I have applied for another grant to continue this work in 2013/14). The stereotypical impression of Hong Kong is that it is extremely Chinese- and Cantonese-dominant – think of dimsum, Cantopop, kungfu movies! – but in fact numerous ethnic minorities abound, some having been here for decades, such as various groups from mainland China who immigrated here in the 1920s as well as groups from the South Asian subcontinent who were relocated here during the British colonial period, and some being more contemporary migrants, such as Filipinos, Indonesians, and Africans. All have to deal with negotiating the various languages in their repertoire and in their environment, and many face challenges –in education, in language maintenance and shift within the family and community, in employment. I intend for this website to bring together all the information on such minorities in Hong Kong, including all the incredible research that is conducted by our faculty and our students, such as in my LCOM3001 course.

Congratulations on your great work! Dr. Lim, how do you see your role as a teacher, researcher and graduate supervisor? Could you share with us some of your special experiences?

I like to inspire my students, to get them excited about a particular area or topic. More importantly, I try to help them see the relevance of what they’re studying or working on, and guide them towards making what they’re doing in the academic world relevant to the real world. Three groups of students have been especially significant to me.

My research postgraduate supervisees I almost always form a very strong and special bond with, after having worked so closely together on their research over several years. Many have gone on to become wonderful scholars and/or teachers in their own right – e.g. Tan Ying Ying (PhD, NUS, 2004) who is now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore; Samuel Wu (MPhil, NUS, 2003) who is at City University Hong Kong (also the winner of the Amazing Race Asia 3 in 2008!), Giovanna Tang (MPhil, HKU, 2013) who is tutoring at Chinese University Hong Kong and preparing to pursue her PhD. I have remained good friends with many of them, and I am immensely proud of them.

Another group that has a special place in my heart are a handful of undergraduate students during my time at the National University of Singapore, who were not A grade students but who were extremely inspired by my classes in phonetics, and who fought hard to pursue their Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology (at LaTrobe in Melbourne), and who now all have wonderfully fulfilling careers as speech and language pathologists/therapists in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. These were not the students who topped the class nor were they in line for the obvious scholarships, but they recognised their calling, and went after their dream, they were determined and they were gutsy, and I am so proud of them. In another life I might have become a speech and language therapist, so I always tell them that I am living vicariously through them.

Then, most recently, I have my cohorts of final-year Language and Communication students in my capstone course LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication. They have to do an extensive fieldwork-based project on a minority community in Hong Kong, with attention to their language situation, in particular the tensions and challenges the community faces in negotiating the positions of their mother tongue alongside larger, more dominant languages such as Cantonese, English, Putonghua. Students have worked on communities such as the Tanka boat-dwellers, the Weitou and the Hakka in their walled villages in the New Territories, the Hokkiens, the Thais, the Nepalis, and even more contemporary minorities such as Filipino domestic helpers, and the African community. This course gives me great satisfaction for a number of reasons. First and foremost, students get their hands dirty with real fieldwork – tough though that may be! – and more importantly it makes them so much more acutely aware of the existence of these linguistic minorities in our midst and gets them interacting with them. Almost all students later write that this is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the project. Some of them even maintain their friendships with the people who were their consultants in the project. Second, the students don’t only write an academic paper. They have to put together a website (or blog) on their project, the community and their findings. This is because I want them writing not just for academia, but also, more importantly, for the public, so that they learn how to convey all the knowledge they have acquired in an interesting and accessible way for the layperson. And I want the public to see all the fantastic research that is going on at HKU, not just with the faculty and postgrads but also by our undergrads. Most of these websites are impressive pieces of work – check out the projects at the links at

I will definitely check it out. Thank you for the introduction to the impressive work your students have done under your guidance. My very last question is personal and I hope you wouldn’t mind my asking. Both your husband and you are busy scholars and members of the research and teaching faculty of HKU with a two-year old son. How do you balance your work with your personal life?

I always reflect (and tell people) how blessed we are, to be able to have wonderful jobs, in the same university, which also allow us a certain amount of flexibility, so that we can experience life-work harmony. It took me a while – the first year or so after we had Kiran was tough, because I wasn’t finding balance within myself, and one ends up feeling guilty about both work and family, and one isn’t happy about how either is going – but things are so good now.

It’s about getting your priorities in order, and about being absolutely focused during the time you have to do something. When I’m with my boy – early mornings, evenings, weekends, holidays – I’m there for him 200%. Because that’s crucial, because children grow up too fast, and I don’t want to miss a single precious moment. But then when I have to work, then I’m absolutely, obsessively, absorbed in whatever task is at hand. And I think I’ve become much more efficient, simply because I have to be!

It’s also crucial to continue your relationship with your partner – so again we are lucky because we collaborate on several research projects, so then even if we’re working, we’re together – and actually we work very well together! And we can meet for lunch at work, pop into each other’s office, go on conference and field trips together… We have even brought our son along on conference and field trips, so that he shares those experiences with us. And of course we also go out for lunches, dinners or movies regularly, and not talk about work or family life at all!

You know, until just last April, when Kiran was 2 years 7 months, I hadn’t been away from him a single night. But I had been invited as a keynote lecturer for the International Society of the Linguistic of English’s 1st postdoctoral spring school, a great honour, especially when you see that the other keynotes were these great, highly established and respected professors – I felt very honoured to be counted in their midst. So, much as I felt apprehensive about being away for an entire week from Kiran, it was something I had to do. In the end, it was a fulfilling and positive experience for all of us on all dimensions – it was an event that came along at the right time, when we were all ready for it.

So the short answer I guess is that you have to want to have this beautiful balance. And if you will it, it will be yours.

I like the way you put it.  Thank you so much for your great stories and your precious time Dr. Lim. We wish you and your family a great summer!

Dr. Lisa Lim, with Kiran, then 1 year 8 months, on a field trip with Umberto Ansaldo in Sri Lanka


Published on: September 2, 2013 < Back >