Languages in Hong Kong - What to Know Before You Go

During the prolonged British colonial period in Hong Kong, English was extensively used as the only language in Hong Kong. However, as the number of inhabitants from the Canton Province of China significantly stood majority, Cantonese also merged as another primary linguistic. Other natives from the east and west improvised the list of spoken and written languages in Hong Kong. The administrative region is now an amalgamation of diverse tongues and written dialects. 

Official Languages in Hong Kong

Official Languages, Hong Kong
Bilingual name boards (Source)
According to the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, initiated in 1990 and officiated in 1997, English and Mandarin are the official languages of the country.

The Chinese Dialect
Both, Mandarin and Cantonese are difficult to learn, as the way a word is pronounced basis vowel sounds, the difference in brush strokes (simple vs traditional), and characters, can change the meaning and intention of any term or sentence. While Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has nine.

Cantonese vs Mandarin

Cantonese Language, Hong Kong
A Cantonese signboard in Hong Kong (Source)
Cantonese is a Southern dialect of the Chinese language, emanating from Guangdong Region. Hong Kong’s political disassociation from mainland China during the British rule secluded Cantonese from the other parts of China in the spread of Mandarin. Due to its extensive use in the country, there has been a long-standing debate over whether Cantonese is a dialect of Mandarin, or a separate language altogether.

Whereas local schools teach Cantonese, all the government and official communication are usually carried out in Mandarin, due to their increased interaction with Mainland China, where Mandarin is preferred and used among other languages in Hong Kong. Both these languages are not mutually comprehensible, which poses a problem, as even though both of them use the same Chinese alphabet, neither of these languages are easy to learn. A person who knows one dialect wouldn’t understand the other lingo due to the complexity of the primary languages in Hong Kong.

Note:
The following interactive Language Map of the languages used in Hong Kong will give you a good idea of the Cantonese speakers in different areas- http://www.ssrc.hku.hk/hklangmaps/

Fact
While English is widespread and commonly used in the Central part of the country, the further you move from there, lesser the number of English speakers you’ll come across. 

The English Understanding
Comprehension, fluency, and proficiency in English, in spite of it being the second official language of the country, is not that great, as the natives resort to using Chinese in their common parlance. But even then, it is widely spoken as it is a pre-requisite for many jobs and businesses.

Other Languages

Shanghainese and Taishanese are a few other Chinese dialects are used among the languages in Hong Kong. Apart from these, German, French, Arabic, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Indian languages such as Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi, Tamil and Hindi are also sparsely used by people, usually immigrants from other parts of the world.

This post was published by Simranjeet Kaur

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