The Official Language and Lingua Franca of Hong Kong

Street sign to the peak tram in Hong Kong
N. Umnajwannaphan / Getty Images

There is no such thing as the Hong Kong Language. The official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English; however, the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin makes the answer a little more complicated.

The Difference Between Cantonese and Mandarin

Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, a southern dialect of Chinese originating in the Guangdong region. Cantonese is spoken by 96 percent of Hong Kongers, as well as those in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Macao.

While there are several other dialects of Chinese, Mandarin is the official dialect of China and is used throughout the country for government communication. Mandarin is by far the dominant language of China. It is also used in Singapore and Taiwan and is the dialect most frequently taught to foreign language learners. The problem is that Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, meaning that a Hong Konger can no more understand a Mandarin speaker than they can a Japanese speaker or a Frenchman. So while you may speak "Chinese," if you’ve learned Mandarin, only 48 percent of Hong Kong residents speak the dialect.

However, Cantonese and Mandarin do use the same Chinese alphabet, which is what classes them as the same language—but even here the picture is muddy. Beijing and China now use simplified characters, using simpler brush strokes, while Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have continued to use traditional brush strokes and characters. It is possible for the reader of one set of characters to understand the other, although those accustomed to simple brushstrokes only may find the traditional ones hard to decipher.

Do People in Hong Kong Speak English?

One of the most popular questions about Hong Kong is if people in Hong Kong speak English. The answer is somewhat complex, and most people will be disappointed to hear that speaking English in Hong Kong is somewhat more difficult than the city attempts to portray.

Because Hong Kong is a major metropolis (and a former British colony), people often arrive in Hong Kong with high expectations about the level of English. In general, they will be disappointed. Hong Kongers are far from fluent in English, and it certainly isn’t a second mother tongue.

That said, English is an official language in Hong Kong. Residents are arguably the best—aside from Singaporeans—users of English in the Asia region, and 46 percent of Hong Kongers speak the language. All official signs and announcements are in both Cantonese and English, and all government officials, including police officers and immigration officials, are required to have a communicative level of English.

In general, shop assistants, restaurant workers, and hotel staff in the main tourist areas such as Central, Wan ChaiCauseway Bay, and Tsim Sha Tsui will be competent in English. Menus in restaurants in these areas will also be provided in English. Seeing as tourists are rarely outside these areas, it means English should be spoken throughout your visit.

Possible problem points include taxi drivers, who rarely speak English. They will, however, be able to contact someone at base by radio who does speak English. Outside the areas above, expect relatively basic English, especially at smaller shops and restaurants. Hong Kong pronunciation of English is also quite pronounced, and it can take a couple of days to adjust to the accents.

In general, the quality of English language learning has been declining, both because of the handover from Britain to China and the increasing importance of Mandarin. The government is currently trying to improve English teaching and hopefully, the effects will be felt before too long.

No matter where you go, it's always smart to learn a few key phrases in the native tongue. "Please," "thank you," and "hello," are the most important.

Basic Phrases

  • Hello: Nei hou
  • How are you: Lay hoe ma
  • Good morning: Jow sun
  • Goodbye: Joy geen
  • Excuse me or thank you: M goy
  • My name is: Ngor guw
  • I don't understand: N gorm ming bat

Restaurants and Shopping

  • How much is it: Ching mun, gay daw cheen
  • Check please: M goy, mai dan
  • Too expensive: Tai gwei le
  • Where is the restroom: Chee saw hai been doe ah
  • Do you have any: Lay yow mo
  • Do you serve beer: Leedo yow mo bair tsow yum ah 
  • Yes, we do: Yow ah
  • No, we don't: Mo ah

If you haven't memorized some intro words and phrases, you can also use common translator apps like Google Translate or iTranslate to write or say a sentence in English and show the translation to the local shopkeeper, taxi driver, or guide.

Was this page helpful?