Join now
Log in Join

Need expat info for Hong Kong?

Join InterNations to meet other expats where you live and read more articles like Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong with relevant information for expats.

Ruben Barbosa

Living in Hong Kong, from Brazil

"I found all my company's expat employees on this site, and they gave me great tips about life abroad in Hong Kong."

Barbara Richter

Living in Hong Kong, from Switzerland

"The InterNations Events are the perfect place to meet and get to know like-minded people for a Hong Kong expat such as myself."

InterNations - a community of trust

Culture, Shopping & Recreation

Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong

Language is the key to culture. By beginning to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong, you can communicate easily with local people and make your stay much more enjoyable. Starting to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong can be very useful as this Chinese dialect is spoken by most of the population.

Nevertheless, trying to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong is probably not the easiest endeavor for expats unfamiliar with any Chinese dialect or Chinese characters. The complicated pronunciation rules make learning Cantonese even more difficult than studying Mandarin. However, it will be worth it in the long run.  

Essentially, though, you have three choices: first, you can try to get along with English only. Second, you can start to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong. Or, thirdly, you can try learning Mandarin instead. In this article, we will discuss these options and give you some basics about Cantonese.

Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Why Start Learning Cantonese?

By beginning to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong, you are actively breaking the ice with the locals. Even though English is one of the official languages of the region, it will be hard to get around with just this language outside of the tourist areas. Therefore, having a phrase or two of basic Cantonese under your belt will be very valuable!

Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Cantonese vs. Mandarin

Given that almost all Hong Kong residents use Cantonese in everyday life, this is definitely the ideal language to get to grips with. Also, starting to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong will be useful if you travel within many parts of southern China, as most of these areas also use Cantonese.

However, there is a downside to this. Plenty of the rest of China uses Mandarin. Also, Mandarin is a much easier dialect to learn than Cantonese. Indeed, knowing Mandarin is becoming very valuable in the field of business communication, as it is used to communicate with Mainland China.

Therefore, if you would rather learn a language which is beneficial for your future career in international business, you might want to opt for Mandarin. Although it is not frequently used in Hong Kong, there are many institutions that offer high-quality Mandarin classes.

Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Some Basics

Once you begin to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong, you will recognize the numerous differences between Western languages and Chinese. In Chinese, every symbol represents an object, an abstract concept or idea. Consequently, there are many more symbols than in the average alphabet of other languages. But don’t worry – not even native Chinese speakers know all the symbols.

Words also have different meanings depending on the tone the speaker uses. In Cantonese, for example, the syllable “si” may mean anything from “history”, “market” or “to try”, depending on whether you use a high, medium or low level tone. As you can imagine, this usually leads to some amusement and confusion. Be aware that common words can be switched into some fairly offensive swearwords simply by using a slightly wrong tone!

Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Practicalities

If you have chosen to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong, you need to know where and how. The most usual methods are language schools, private tutors, and self study. Of course, if you are studying Cantonese, your daily contact with the locals will give you the best chance at practicing your skills.

There are lots of language schools available in Hong Kong, offering classes to help you to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong. Language schools differ considerably in class sizes, teaching methods and prices, so look around to find one that best suits your personal needs. Notably, the Chinese University of Hong Kong offers language classes for non-students.

Another increasingly popular way of improving one’s language skills are language partners. The concept is relatively easy: you team up with a native speaker of Cantonese or Mandarin, who helps you to practice the language. In return, you help your language partner with English or another language you speak fluently. You can easily find a language partner on the internet, for example on websites such as the Language Exchange Community.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

InterNations Expat Magazine