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Languages of Hong Kong

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Title: Languages of Hong Kong  
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Languages of Hong Kong

The Basic Law of Hong Kong stipulates that both Chinese (de facto Cantonese) and English are official languages in Hong Kong.[1] During the British colonial era, English was the sole official language of Hong Kong until 1974. The majority of the population in Hong Kong were descendants of migrants from the Canton (now Guangdong) and speak Cantonese as first language, and only a minority groups were expatriates. In addition, there were immigrants from the West and other Asian countries, countries such as the Indian subcontinent, United Kingdom, and the Philippines. The multicultural population, as a result, has contributed much to Hong Kong's language diversity.

Chinese and English

Cantonese and English are both official languages of Hong Kong under the Hong Kong Basic Law (article 9) and the Official Languages Ordinance (chapter 5 of the Laws of Hong Kong).

Historically, English was the sole official language of Hong Kong from 1883 to 1974. Only after demonstrations and petitions from Hong Kong people demanding equal status for Chinese,[2] did Chinese become the other official language in Hong Kong from 1974 onward. In March 1987, the Official Languages Ordinance was amended to require all new legislation to be enacted bilingually in both English and Chinese. In 1990, the Hong Kong Basic Law declared English's co-official language status with Chinese after the 1997 handover.

Government language policy

After the handover, the government of Hong Kong adopted the "biliterate and trilingual" (兩文三語) policy. Under this policy, both Chinese and English are acknowledged as official languages; with Cantonese being acknowledged as the de facto official spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong, while also accepting Mandarin.[3]

The Civil Service Bureau regulates the government's language policy at the civil level, while the Department of Justice governs the legal aspect and the Education and Manpower Bureau monitors the educational aspect.


Spoken Cantonese

[4] 89.5% of the population in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, a Chinese spoken variant originating from Guangzhou (Canton) city in Guangdong province. It is the main variety used in education, broadcasting, government administration, legislature and judiciary as well as daily communication.

Part of a multilingual welcoming signboard at the former KCR East Tsim Sha Tsui Station. (From the top: French, Japanese, Spanish and Korean).
Road signs in Hong Kong are written in both Chinese and English.

China has numerous variants of spoken Chinese, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Most are only used in their own native areas, while some like the dialects of Guangdong and Fujian have spread to other areas as a result of emigration.

In the Sai Wan District of Hong Kong, Toishanese and Teochew are common. In Yuen Long and Kam Tin, Hakka is common. Other forms like Waitau Wah are mostly spoken by the older generation living in walled villages. The Tanka people from the fishing villages is another group with their own variation of Cantonese.

Spoken Mandarin

When Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom, Mandarin Chinese was not widely used in Hong Kong.

Despite the continuous effort of Chinese governments (including those of Imperial, Republic and Communist China) to promote Mandarin as the official dialect (or, to some extent, Lingua franca) within mainland China and the Sinophone world, many ethnic Chinese still maintain at least one native language for informal uses in addition to formal Mandarin.

A similar phenomenon is seen in Chinese living in Hong Kong, but with English still as the formal language. Most of the people in Hong Kong maintain at least one native Chinese language for informal use in addition to the formal language. From mid-19th century to late-20th century, a majority of Hong Kong people had Cantonese as their native Chinese language and English as the official language.

In the second half of the 20th century, mainland China was scarred by poverty, cultural revolution, corruption and illiteracy, which led to increased migration from the mainland to Hong Kong. As a result, Mandarin is often associated with negative impression in Hong Kong.

In the late 20th century, mainland China's economic situation improved under Deng Xiaoping's economic reform, and is now an "emerging superpower".[5][6] After the 1997 handover, Hong Kong developed closer economic ties with the rest of China. The Hong Kong government started to promote the use Mandarin as a business skill. Mandarin became a subject in many primary schools beginning in 1998, and was integrated into the HKCEE examinations in 2000. The government of Hong Kong has encouraged students to be "biliterate and trilingual",[7] thus adding Mandarin to one of the essential languages. In fact, Mandarin has became an important business language for adults and the usage of Mandarin has been introduced to public service announcements in Hong Kong, such as public transportation.

At least 1.4% of Hong Kong citizens speak a variety of Mandarin at home.

Written Chinese

Hong Kong uses the standard written Chinese based on Standard Chinese, which is the standard and formal written language for all Chinese speakers. However, written Chinese is distinct from spoken Cantonese in both grammar and vocabulary.

There is also a written language based on the vocabulary and grammar of spoken Cantonese known as written Cantonese. Although the "biliterate and trilingual" policy implies an absence of support for written Cantonese, it is has gained popularity in news media where entertainment and local news are related. However, written Cantonese is unintelligible to non-Cantonese speakers and is considered nonstandard by educators despite its widespread usage in Hong Kong. Written Cantonese does not have a standard set of characters but has a de facto standard built though convention. Some have also credited written Cantonese for solving the challenges that standard written Chinese had faced in popular culture.

Traditional Chinese characters are widely used, and are the de facto writing standard in Hong Kong. However there are also locale vulgar characters (俗字) in addition to Simplified Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese is seen in posters, leaflets, flyers, and signs in the tourist areas. Students are also permitted to use Simplified Characters in time-constrained exams. Nevertheless, Hong Kong people feel a sense of cultural attachment to Traditional Chinese, and the Hong Kong government is unlikely to abandon them in the foreseeable future.


A bilingual sale banner hung before a shop in Causeway Bay.

English is a major working language in Hong Kong, and is widely used in commercial activities and legal matters. Although the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred to the PRC by the United Kingdom in 1997, English remains one of the official languages of Hong Kong as enshrined in the Basic Law.

Code-switching between Cantonese and English

Many Hong Kong people use both Cantonese and English, or "code-switch", in the same sentence when speaking. For example, "唓,都唔 make sense!" ("Wow, that made no sense!"). The code-switching can freely mix English words and Chinese grammar, for instance " Un Un ?" ("Do you understand?") (not a common use) which follows the Chinese grammar syntax 'verb - - verb' to ask "Do you (verb)?". Notice also the shortening of 'understand' to 'un' since most Cantonese verbs are single syllables.

Some code-switched words are used so often that they have become loanwords in Cantonese,[8] for example,

  • "like", pronounced "lai-kee" /laːi55kʰi35/.
  • "Partner", pronounced "pat-la" /pʰaːt̚55laː21/.
  • "File", pronounced "fai-lo" /faːi55lou35/.
  • "Number", pronounced "lum-ba" /lɐm55pa35/.
  • "Case", pronounced "kei-see" /kʰei55si35/.

Transliterations in Hong Kong after 1997

Before 1997, Cantonese pronunciation was the basis for transliterating English proper names into Chinese. After the handover, however, the media in Hong Kong began to adopt already established transliterations based on Mandarin pronunciations to align with China. For example, Houston, which used to be transliterated as 候斯頓 (Jyutping: hau6 si1 deon6), has now become 休斯頓 (jau1 si1 deon6), and San Diego, formerly 聖地牙哥 (sing3 dei6 ngaa4 go1), has become 聖迭戈 (sing3 dit6 gwo1). In some cases the Mandarin-based transliteration sounds far from the original when pronounced in Cantonese. For example, Wal-Mart is transliterated as 沃爾瑪 (pinyin: wòěrmǎ); when pronounced in Cantonese, the name becomes juk1 ji5 maa5.

Sign language

Other European languages


In Hong Kong, French is the second most studied foreign language after Japanese. Many institutions in Hong Kong, like Alliance française, provide French courses. Local universities, such as the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Baptist University offer programmes which aim at developing proficiency in French language and culture. The language is included as a subject in the HKCEE, but not in HKALE with accordance to British International General Certificate of Secondary Education's (IGCSE) standards. The IGCSE French syllabus used by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) is adopted in the examination. The only French book store, Librairie Parentheses, in Hong Kong is located on Wellington Street, Central.[9]

Real estate developers in Hong Kong often give their buildings French names, such as Bel-Air, Les Saisons and Belle Mer. This kind of foreign branding is also used in boutiques and restaurants. An example is Yucca de Lac in Ma Liu Shui. Sometimes only French elements such as articles and prepositions are added to the name, as in the case of the restaurant chain Café de Coral. Similar mixing of English and French can be seen on the menu of Délifrance, a French-style restaurant chain in Hong Kong.


This is a cup pad used in a western restaurant called "Das Gute" in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. Note that the name of the restaurant, as well as the words on the cup pad, are in German.

The exact number of German speakers in Hong Kong is about 5000, significant enough for the establishment of the German Swiss International School (Deutsch-Schweizerische Internationale Schule), which claims to number more than 1,000 students, at The Peak of Hong Kong Island.[10] Many institutions in Hong Kong provide German courses. The most well-known one is the Goethe-Institut, which is located in Wan Chai. After spending a certain period of time in learning German, students can take the German Test as a Foreign Language (Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache; TestDaF for short) and Start German A1-C2. There are currently two test centres for TestDaF in Hong Kong: the Goethe-Institut and the Hong Kong Baptist University. The latter one also offers a European Studies degree course of German Stream, Bachelor of Social Science in European Studies (German Stream), in parallel with the French stream. A minor program of German is offered at the Language Centre of HKBU. The Hong Kong University is offering a Major in German after 4 years of study. The Chinese University is offering a Minor in German and popular summer courses. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is offering German for science and technology.

Other East Asian languages


There are over 25,000 Japanese people in Hong Kong, so it is not uncommon to hear Japanese conversations. More than 10,000 people in Hong Kong had taken the JLPT in 2005 [11] and ATV World also broadcasts a TV program that teaches Japanese. However, the language is often misused.[12]

The signboard of the shopping mall Nu Front at Causeway Bay. The character , replaced by in the name, also appears, serving as a footnote.

Japanese culture, especially the popular culture, has been popular in Hong Kong for decades. Hong Kong people occasionally replace Chinese characters with Japanese. In addition, the Companies Registry also permits the hiragana (no) in Chinese business names that are registered in Hong Kong.[13] The hiragana の is usually used in place of the Chinese character (zi1) and read as such in Hong Kong. In fact, Aji Ichiban has adopted の in their company name (優の良品). There are also borrowings from Japanese shinjitai kanji (eki) to substitute (zaam6, both 站 and 駅 means "station" in their respective languages), as in Nu Front (東角駅), a shopping mall for Hong Kong youngsters in Causeway Bay. There are also some private estates named with the kanji . These loanwords are pronounced by Hong Kong people as if they were their Chinese counterparts (i.e. as , and as ). The Japanese Kanji is the shinjitai of the Chinese character (jik6). However, 驛 has fallen out of usage to in modern Chinese and became obsolete. Therefore, it is not uncommon to mispronounce as its phonetic compound (cek3).


Koreans in Hong Kong only make up a small minority while Korean culture has gained popularity since early 2000s. Korean pop music was the first Korean media to enter Hong Kong's market. Since then, several Korean TV series such as Dae Jang Geum have been broadcast to a large number of audiences.[14] There are roughly 1,000 students that took Korean courses at the Chinese University of Hong Kong each year, including undergraduates as well as professionals who enrolled in continuing education programs. Roughly 3,000 people have taken the Test of Proficiency in Korean since its introduction to Hong Kong in 2003.[15] Surveys and statistics from course enrollments have shown that nine-tenths of the students studying Korean in Hong Kong are female.[16]

Southeast Asian languages


Tagalog and other Philippine languages are used by Filipinos in Hong Kong, most of whom are employed as foreign domestic workers. There is a long-standing practice with "No littering" signs written in Tagalog as well as Chinese and English.

Newspapers and magazines in Tagalog can also be easily bought in Central, Hong Kong. There are also a small number of churches in Hong Kong that have masses or services in Tagalog, for example the afternoon masses provided by the St. John's Cathedral in Central.


Indonesian is the common language for the significant number of Indonesians working in Hong Kong, though Javanese is also widely spoken. Most are domestic workers; on their days off, they often gather at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to socialise and the language can be heard.[17]


Thai prevails among the Thai population in Hong Kong, who are mostly working as domestic workers. The Thai language is found in many shops and restaurants opened by Thais in Kowloon City. A number of Thai movies have been imported since the early 2000s, such as The Wheel in the medley Three, Jan Dara, the Iron Ladies, My Little Girl, and Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and Tom-Yum-Goong starring Tony Jaa.


Vietnamese is used in Hong Kong among the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who had initially settled in Vietnam and returned to Hong Kong. Vietnamese refugees who left their home during the Vietnam War is another group.

The Vietnamese-language broadcasts made by the Hong Kong government in 1988 announced that Hong Kong was going to receive no more Vietnamese refugees. It has since become part of the collective memory to many Hong Kong people living in that era. The beginning words, "Bắt đầu từ nay", which mean "from now on", are probably the only Vietnamese phrase that most non-Vietnamese in Hong Kong know. The phrase Bắt đầu từ nay was used by some locals to disparagingly refer to the Vietnamese people.

South Asian languages

According to the 2006 By-Census, there were at least 44,744 persons of South Asian descent in Hong Kong.[18] Signboards written in Hindi or Urdu can be seen, and conversation in South Asian languages including Nepali, Sindhi and Punjabi, as well as Urdu, Hindi and Tamil can be heard.

Hong Kong has two Nepalese newspapers, The Everest and the Sunrise Weekly Hong Kong. In 2004, the Home Affairs Bureau and Metro Plus AM 1044 jointly launched radio shows Hong Kong-Pak Tonight in Urdu and Harmo Sagarmatha in Nepalese.[19]

Middle Eastern languages



See also


  1. ^ "Hong Kong Basic Law: Chapter I".  
  2. ^
  3. ^ "ACTION PLAN TO RAISE LANGUAGE STANDARDS IN HONG KONG", Standing Committee on Language Education and Research. Retrieved on 2007-02-25.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Gordon, Peter. """Review of "China: The Balance Sheet -- What the World Needs to Know Now About the Emerging Superpower. The Asia Review of Books. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  6. ^ Miller, Lyman. "China an Emerging Superpower?". Stanford Journal of International Relations. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Chan, Mimi and Helen Kwok (1982). A Study of Lexical Borrowing from English in Hong Kong Cantonese. Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong.
  9. ^ Librairie Parentheses, "only French bookstore"
  10. ^ "Principal's Welcome". German Swiss International School. 2006-12-09. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  11. ^ "Number of Applicants and Examines by Test Site of the JLPT 2005", The Japan Foundation. Retrieved on 2007-02-25.
  12. ^ "2005年10月 ニホンコンゴ★ ついに映像化!", R by R Production. Retrieved on 2007-02-25. (in Japanese)
  13. ^ "Business" Required to be Registered and Application for Business Registration: Business Name, Inland Revenue Department
  14. ^ "學習韓語秘技傍身", Centaline Human Resources Consultants Limited, 2005-03-03. Retrieved on 2007-02-25. (in Traditional Chinese)
  15. ^ "The Woman Who Taught Hong Kong to Speak Korean", Chosun Ilbo, 2010-01-28, retrieved 2010-01-28 
  16. ^ Kim, Hyewon Kang (2010), "Korean Language and Korean Studies in Hong Kong (1998–2009)", Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 7 (1): 141–153 
  17. ^ "Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong". Radio International Singapore. 2006-02-25. Retrieved 2007-01-09. 
  18. ^ "Thematic Report: Ethnic Minorities" (PDF). Publications and Products of the 2006 Population By-census (Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong) (xvi). 2007-12-28. Retrieved 2008-01-23. 
  19. ^ "Urdu and Nepali radio programmes to launch". Hong Kong Information Services Department. 2004-11-19. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  20. ^ "古蘭經及阿文新課程 (Qur'an and Arabic language class)". 2006-04-03. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 


  • Bruce, Nigel (1996). Language in Hong Kong Education & Society: A Bibliography
  • Pennington, Martha C. ed. (1998). Language in Hong Kong at Century's End. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962-209-418-X.

External links

  • Website of Official Languages Division, Civil Service Bureau.
  • Website of Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), Education and Manpower Bureau.
  • The British Council, Hong Kong.
  • Alliance Française, Hong Kong.
  • French at The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  • Goethe-Institut, Hong Kong.
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