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Hong Kong - Speaking the Language

There are two official languages of Hong Kong, as stipulated by article 9 in the Basic Law of Hong Kong. The first one is Cantonese (Guǎngdōng huà,广东话), which is spoken by 96% of residents. It is a minority dialect of Chinese, mostly from the Guangdong Province in mainland China. The second official language is English (Yīngyǔ, 英语), which 46% of residents speak. Notably this is due to English being the exclusive language of Hong Kong during the British colonial era, until 1974. Very recently, Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà,普通话) has taken over from English as the second most spoken language in Hong Kong, with Mandarin speakers currently at 48%. Many mainlanders have moved over to Hong Kong, taking with them their dialect of Chinese. Tourists from the mainland visit frequently, and an adaptive and business-minded Hong Kong has shifted away from the colonial days by embracing Mandarin. There are also small pockets of various lesser-known Chinese dialects spoken in Hong Kong, such as Hakka Chinese or the Teochew dialect, which are specific to walled communities in the New Territories (新界).

Outside of the most commonly used languages of Cantonese, Mandarin and English, in the widely diverse multicultural society of Hong Kong you will almost certainly hear Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese. This will probably be even more the case in the urban, populated areas. South Asian languages can be heard in shopping districts such as Tsim Sha Tsu (尖沙咀/尖沙), where for example you will hear Urdu, Hindu or Punjabi. Additionally, Arabic is spoken in Muslim communities, but this is less common.

English speakers very much depend on the area. Because just under half of the population speak English to various levels of competency, it would be easy to assume communication would be easy. It is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, so it is important to remember that you should not expect English to be spoken everywhere you go. One day you may have a taxi driver who speaks English, the next you may not. Location is a key factor in understanding whether people around you may communicate in English with you. Like many places, the more remote and rural you get, the less English is spoken. If you travel far north, you may not meet anyone who can speak English at all. The more urbanised the surroundings, the more English is spoken.This rule is mostly true of Hong Kong, and it is useful to divide it into its three regions, comprised of 18 districts, to explain geographically.

The first region of Hong Kong is the New Territories, in the north, and the islands in the South West. The New Territories districts are comprised of: South-Western Islands, Kwai Tsing, North, Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Tai Po, Tsuen Wan, Tuen Mun, Yuen Long. Within these districts English is less frequently spoken.

The second region is Kowloon. This region is comprised of the districts of: Kowloon city, Kwun Tong, Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin, Yau Tsim Mong. You will find English is spoken frequently in Kowloon City and less in the other areas.

The third region is Hong Kong Island (香港島). This region is comprised of the districts of: Central & Western, Eastern, Southern, Wan Chai. This region has a large number of expats living and working there, so speaking English is commonplace.

There is a gap between the generations in terms of speaking English. You will most certainly find that young children aged 4-10 will know very basic English: a small amount of vocabulary, numbers and key phrases. Teens aged 11-18 will know competent English, with some being proficient. This age group, particularly the older ones, will be keen to practise their English with a native. University students will almost certainly be fluent, as university tuition is conducted in English, and for those who go on to further education, it will be the same. This is perhaps the peak, aside from natives who speak English in their job, policemen, shop workers, waiters etc where it is in their job descriptions. Once you leave school in Hong Kong and do not need to speak English to get by, it can fast be forgotten without practice. You will find older Hong Kongers will very rarely speak English.

English is the chosen language of use in the sectors of tourism, government and business. When it comes to legal or commercial matters, English is also used.

If you are in an international bank or a finance-related international workplace, English will be the language spoken. Chinese customers who require Mandarin or Cantonese will speak to bilingual speakers. If you are working within a university, English will be the first language. If you are working in a local kindergarten, English will not be the first language.

It is currently a hot topic of debate among people relocating to Hong Kong as to whether they will learn to speak Mandarin or Cantonese. American (ABC) or British (BBC) born Chinese expats may speak Mandarin and English, but many want to know if learning some Cantonese will aid them in their job. Hong Kong is highly adaptable and practical, and in this forward-thinking place, the real language is business. Business in Hong Kong adapts its spoken word to demand. Mandarin is edging in as a favoured language for bilingual expats, as they can communicate with mainland China, which creates a business bridge. If you work in the finance or education sectors as many expats do in Hong Kong, and are not from a Chinese background, there is much less expectation for you to speak Chinese at work at all.

It should be said that speaking Mandarin in everyday life, outside of business will not be met well by patriotic locals.

Broadly speaking, as the language spoken by the everyday HongKonger is Cantonese, it would benefit you more to learn this for getting around. It means wherever you go in Hong Kong, you have a better chance of communicating your needs and navigating around. It would also be kindly received by locals who are patriotic about their local dialect. People who relocate to Hong Kong are fine getting around the many districts, thanks to its colonial roots. This is because signs and public transport are written bilingually, the MTR is bilingual, and is a familiar sign which is clearly signposted wherever you may venture. It would be a mistake to assume that the signs and transport equate to a general level of fluency from the natives though.

If you reside on Hong Kong Island, you can easily survive without using Chinese aside from a few words you pick up, and even these can be said out of habit rather than necessity. It is possible to exist on the bare minimal standard of Cantonese providing you do not travel to other parts of Hong Kong. Realistically however, you are probably going to travel around, and due to the varying amounts of English spoken, you should learn basic phrases, numerals and words in Cantonese which can help you eat, drink, direct a taxi driver and go shopping. As Cantonese contains 9 tones and to the untrained ear many words sound the same, learning small amounts well is ideal.

Hong Kong is brimming with opportunities to learn Cantonese/Mandarin. Even without using the internet or newspapers to search, simply through word of mouth you will be able to have several tutors or institutions recommended to you. Education is a large and important industry in Hong Kong and is well respected.

Cantonese Courses:

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

For serious study. Offers full-time, part-time and evening courses, official Level 2 qualifications and Elementary and Intermediate Cantonese classes for non natives.

Tel: 00 + (852) 3943 8224

Cantonese Corner

Relaxed study, private or group lessons for Mandarin and English speakers, lessons arranged to suit Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced learners.

Tel: 00 + (852) 31242817

Hong Kong Language Learning Centre

Language school for Mandarin speakers and expats learning English where you can purchase blocks of learning time for individuals or more. Special packages for Law, Office, Banking in Mandarin.

Tel: 00 + (852) 23855331

Private Tutors - Many tutors advertise and keep details secure on websites which require members to login - see below. Ask other expats for private tutors who go by word of mouth recommendations and have less of an online presence.

Tutor aggregators


You are able to chose a tutor based on price and location who suits you. This site is also useful for general questions you have about expat life.


Learn Cantonese on Skype with a native tutor or select on price and ratings, book lessons for times that suit you. Tutors display timetable of availability. It can be started before you move to Hong Kong.

Useful websites for learning Cantonese and language discussion:

Cantonese Phorum: Discussion on cultural, grammatical, written, verbal aspects of Cantonese.

Omniglot: A site where basic phrases are written in English and Cantonese, with a clickable audio facility for pronunciation. There are also informal and formal variations of words. Useful and thematic vocabulary for many situations such as office, restaurant and health.

Gong: A site that tackles the tonal language of Cantonese, which has 9 in total but 6 separately classed.

Regarding television, you do not need a license for a TV. If you move somewhere with a standard TV and aerial you will find most channels do not broadcast in English or have subtitles. There are two channels which do; these are listed below.

TVB Jade: English subtitles to drama shows and news broadcasts with subtitles and other programmes.

TVB Pearl: News broadcasts, weather and bulletins with subtitles and other programmes.

Expats commonly purchase different packages so they can watch sports and other programmes in English. Hong Kong Cable, Star TV, and Now Broadband TV are examples of such providers.

It is very common for English speakers to use their skills as means of employment. TEFL is an ever increasing sector with an ever increasing demand. Jobs range between teaching English in preschools to teaching at university level. Schools may be local/government-run or private/international. Most frequently, English teachers are placed in kindergartens. Expats can also work in Learning Centres, which is where students study extra classes outside of school. Additionally, you can find regular work by registering and working at a Tutor Centre, where you can privately tutor children individually or in small groups.

Expats also work at special Business Academies/Learning Centres and also TEFL Centres, where they can teach CertTESOL CELTA or other ESOL certifications.Those that teach during the day often subsidise their income with ad hoc tutoring through word of mouth. Sometimes expats work in schools during the week and Learning Centres at weekends.

Translation and interpreting jobs are almost exclusively for Chinese speakers translating to English, as it is uncommon to find English speakers proficient enough to translate to Mandarin or Cantonese.

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