Languages in Hong Kong

Cantonese, Mandarin and English

Languages in Hong Kong

Though English is one of Hong Kong´s official languages, most of the locals speak Cantonese, which is a dialect of Chinese.

There are two main dialects of Chinese: Cantonese and Mandarin. Both difficult languages to learn. They are tonal languages, which means that the way in which various vowel sounds are pronounced alters the meanings of entire words. Mandarin is said to have four tones, while Cantonese has nine. Though Cantonese is most common in Hong Kong, increased contact with mainland China has led to the appearance of Mandarin speakers in greater numbers.

English in Hong Kong

While either Cantonese or Mandarin is the language of choice for the local population, English is technically Hong Kong´s second official language. All of Hong Kong´s universities use English as their official language, and the government is placing increased emphasis on the development of English language skills at the primary and secondary levels of education.

If you are an English speaker you should be able to make yourself understood in most of Hong Kong´s central areas. As you travel further away from these areas, however, you will increasingly come across Chinese people who speak little or no English. This can be a problem if you intend to use cabs for transportation throughout Hong Kong, as you may have trouble communicating with the drivers! If you truly want to immerse yourself into Hong Kong’s local culture, you should try to learn one of the local languages.

Cantonese or Mandarin?

Which of Hong Kong´s two Asian languages you should learn will depend on your lifestyle in Hong Kong. If you will be spending most of your time in Hong Kong interacting with locals, you will definitely want to learn Cantonese. Knowing Cantonese will integrate you into your surroundings, help you navigate the city streets and manage your daily life, not to mention impress the locals that you meet.

However, if you are a business-person who will be travelling to mainland China or interacting with mainland Chinese on a regular basis, you will probably want to learn Mandarin instead. Of the two languages, Mandarin will certainly be more useful in your business dealings, though you will also most likely encounter Mandarin-speakers in Hong Kong as well.

The development of Cantonese in Hong Kong

Cantonese, like all Chinese dialects, developed out of splits in ancient Chinese that arose due to geographical and cultural differences. The language is linked heavily with Guangdong Province throughout history (the city of Canton, from which ¨Cantonese¨ is derived, is the capital of Guangdong).

When the British took control of Hong Kong during the colonial period, its political separation from mainland China isolated Cantonese from the spread of Mandarin across the rest of China. Also during the British occupation, certain English words made their way into Hong Kong Cantonese slang, where they remain today. The English phrase ¨Big eat small,¨ for instance, may be used by a Cantonese-speaker as a reference to Darwinism, or to describe sibling rivalry.

Though there is some debate over whether Cantonese should be considered a separate language or a dialect of Standard Mandarin, Cantonese language film and print media continue to be produced in Hong Kong. Similarly, Cantonese remains the language used in Hong Kong´s local schools.

Further reading

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