Guide to Languages in Hong Kong (for Expats)

Mix of Chinese and English Languages in Hong Kong

English remains as one of Hong Kong´s official languages after its reunion with China (or “handover of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China” depending on who you ask), most of the locals speak Cantonese, which is a major dialect of Chinese spoken by people in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Cantonese is also one of the official language in Macau, one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while the other being Hong Kong.

Although Cantonese is the most common in Hong Kong, increased contact with China has led to greater appearance of Mandarin speakers in daily life, which is the sole official language of PRC government and majorly spoken by people across northern, central, and southwestern China.

Almost every expats tell Chinese languages are difficult to learn. It’s because they are tonal languages, which means that the meanings of entire words alter the way in which their vowel sounds are pronounced: Mandarin is said to have four tones, while Cantonese has nine (some people says 7 tones). Generally speakings, modern Chinese languages are classified into totally 7 linguistic groups and estimated to be spoken by 1,115 million people worldwide. However, they are closely-related but mutually unintelligible.

Apart from the variant in dialect of modern Chinese languages, its writing system (i.e. 漢字 Han Zi), fortunately, is separated into 2 similar system: Simplified Chinese characters set in China and Singapore, and Traditional Chinese one in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. If you have learn either one of them, you can definitely able to read the another. It’s because Simplified Chinese was invented based on Traditional Chinese but with less strokes. In fact, regular Chinese use 4000 Chinese characters at most in daily communication (speaking, reading and writing), knowing just 1,000 of the most commonly used Chinese characters (Reference in Traditional Chinese are here and here) will enable you to understand approximately 90% of written communication, 2,500 of them enable you to understand around 98% of written Chinese, all of them make you to be considered a literate.

English in Hong Kong

Following Cantonese/Mandarin, English is technically Hong Kong’s second official language: all of Hong Kong’s territory universities use English as their official language, all of the government authorities provide all of their official documents in English, and TV and radio channels broadcast in English.

English speakers should be make yourself understood in most of Hong Kong’s central business areas, however, the local Chinese people you meet further away from city’s core can usually speaks little English or no English. This can be a problem if you want to immerse yourself into Hong Kong’s local culture by taking taxi for transportation across the downtown.

For English-speakers visit Hong Kong for doing business in the city, they should find zero problem to communicate with the government, the financial institutes, and your local business partners.

When you want to stay in the city for a while, learn one or two slang in Cantonese should help a lot.

Learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

Learning either one is difficult, your choice depends on motivation that push your learning:

  • If you are a business-person who will be travelling to mainland China and interacting with mainland Chinese on a regular basis, learning Mandarin should be the first choice as it must be more useful in any Chinese-related business dealings. Nevertheless, Mandarin-speaking business-persons are increasingly common in Hong Kong.
  • If you are going to stay in Hong Kong for a period of time (e.g. holder of employment visa in Hong Kong), minimal communication with locals should be important, to learn Cantonese (a bit of) is definitely vital to integrate you without the community surroundings, navigate the streets and manage your daily life.

Don’t be afraid of speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong even you’re a beginner, the majority of Hong Kong people are nice, the locals you met are impressed more than expected!

Fun of Cantonese for English-Speaking Expats

Culture and living style in Hong Kong has been greatly affecting by its historical background:

Before the British captured the control of Hong Kong, Cantonese was the major dialect of people living here due to the close linkage with the city of Canton (in current Guangdong province, from which “Cantonese” is derived) where was a major seaport for overseas trade and thus a merging spot of eastern and western cultures.

During the British colonial period, Cantonese and traditional Chinese along with English were selected as the official languages by authority as a mean of political separation from China to isolate Hong Kong from the cultural influence from across the rest of China leading by PPC. The British occupation introduced certain English words to the Hong Kong Chinese who made their way into Hong Kong Cantonese slang.

Cantonese slang for English-speaker

In this section, you will find Cantonese in Hong Kong is mixed with English words heavily, below we will show you the some Cantonese slang which is a direct borrowing from English.

For native English-speaker to understand this section, you must treat Chinese as a new category of language – both of their the phonetic system and writing system are completely different. It is easy to notice 2 key difference:

  • A Chinese character is a syllable which is constituted from one vowel, one consonant, and one tonal modifier.
  • A Chinese character has its meaning and usually multiple meanings depending on its accompanying characters.

When locals need to “borrow” English words or vocabularies which are usually consist of more than one vowel (multi syllables), they carefully combine multiple Chinese characters to represent it, however, jokes are made from these Chinese character combinations if we simply translate an individual character within them.

If you find you have trouble to view and listen Chinese characters (these are Traditional Chinese as it is the official writing system of Chinese in Hong Kong) in the below, kindly update your browser to its latest version to support HTML5, and amend its “setting” in which “character encoding” to “UTF-8” for multilingual supporting.

The fun starts here:

杯葛
Literally: CUP, YAM BEAN
Meaning: (n.) boycott  (a exact borrowing from English)

派頭
Literally: DISPATCH, HEAD
Meaning: (n.) pride/style (a borrowing from English “pride”)

派對
Literally: DISPATCH, CORRECT
Meaning: social gathering (a exact borrowing from English)

Literally: DISPATCH
Meaning: political party (a exact borrowing from English)

仆街 (! WARNING: DIRTY WORD !)
Literally: FALL/PROSTRATE, STREET
Meaning: jerk/scumbag (a exact borrowing from English “Poor Guy”)

薯嘜
Literally: POTATO, MARK (borrowed from English)
Meaning: schmuck (a exact borrowing from English)

花臣
Literally: FLOWER, MINISTER
Meaning: fashionable,  (a exact borrowing from English “fashion”)

拍檔
Literally: BEAT, FILE
Meaning: partner  (a exact borrowing from English)

燕梳
Literally: SWALLOW (a genre of bird), COMB
Meaning: (n.)insurance  (a exact borrowing from English)

Literally: FLY (moving through the air)
Meaning: ticket (a borrowing from English “fare”)
Example usage: 戲飛
Literally: MOVIE/DRAMA, FLY
Meaning: movie ticket

Literally: SING (sing a song)
Meaning: change (a borrowing from English “change”)
Usage: 唱錢
Literally: SING, MONEY
Meaning: change money, currency exchange

Final Note

It article may be a bit difficult for English-speakers. In our experience, most non-Chinese speaking expats can learn to hear and speak understandable Cantonese or Mandarin in their 2-year of stay in Hong Kong, we witness that they learn the way to make effective conversation with locals by imitation. However, only very few of them can learn to read Han Zi, those who can write Han Zi is a minority.

For those who are interest in Chinese languages for daily communication but are not ready to attend language course, we suggest the web resource as follows:

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