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Living in Hong Kong
Language in Hong Kong
Language in Hong Kong is not easy to figure out for a newcomer: expect to hear and see a lot that you cannot understand! Although English remains an official language in Hong Kong, getting along with English alone can be much harder than you may think.
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The majority of Hong Kong residents learn English during their time at school. As a result, English has become the most important second language in Hong Kong. However, pronunciation is often far from the original, and many do not speak the language fluently.
Language in Hong Kong: The Use of English
Due to the region’s history as a British colony, English has a different status as a language in Hong Kong than it does in most other Asian countries. As mentioned above, English is an official language in Hong Kong. This has one major benefit for the majority of expatriates: street signs, as well as official documents, are always written in both Chinese and English.
Moreover, this heightened status of the English language in Hong Kong means that certain professions demand an ability to speak English. This is true, for example, of police officers and government officials. Therefore, if you have any serious issues during your time in Hong Kong, you should be able to communicate with the people who matter most!
However, in spite of the fact that English is taught in schools, and universities offer degree courses in English, plenty of the local population are incapable of speaking the language in Hong Kong.
Actually, according to a recent census report, less than 50% of Hong Kong’s residents speak fluent English. It is thus not surprising that only 3% of locals prefer to use English as their usual, everyday language.
Perhaps this is down to the fact that, during British rule, the use of English was always restricted to the local social elite. The majority of the population, for over 150 years, was never exposed to English, and used Cantonese as their daily means of communication.
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Language in Hong Kong: An Introduction to ‘Chinese’
Therefore, as far as language in Hong Kong is concerned, we think it worthwhile to give you a short introduction to the different Chinese languages and dialects that you will hear in the street, as well as the written Chinese that you will find all around you.
The role of China’s lingua franca, Mandarin, is much less pronounced in Hong Kong than in Mainland China. Instead, the most popular language in Hong Kong is Cantonese. This language mainly uses the same written characters as standard Chinese.
However, Mandarin and the Cantonese language in Hong Kong are not mutually intelligible. If you know some Mandarin, though, you might still be able to understand a fair amount of what is going on around you, as the government is trying to actively promote the spread of both Mandarin and Cantonese. If you would like more information on which of these is best to learn, see our article on learning Cantonese in Hong Kong.