The pros and cons of learning Mandarin in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is on China’s southern coast, with a humid subtropical climate. Typhoons occur quite often during the summer. Winters are usually cloudy and damp. Weather-wise, I would not say Hong Kong is the best place to visit or to stay. On everything else, Hong Kong is a very attractive city. 

Our question of this article is, is Hong Kong a good place to learn Mandarin? 

I am letting out a spoiler. I believe HK is a fabulous place to learn Mandarin, and I’ll explain why. First, let’s take a look at Hong Kong’s language terrain.

Languages in Hong Kong

The number one language widely spoken in the city is Cantonese, one of the dialects of Chinese. This is due to the fact that about 92% of Hong Kong population is Chinese, and most of them originally came to Hong Kong from Guangdong region. The next dominate language is English, 4.3% are native English speakers, and 48.9% speak it as a second language. Mandarin, another dialect of Chinese, is almost as prevalent as English, with 1.9% native speakers and 46.7% speaking Mandarin as a second language. (Numbers are according to Population By-Census 2016.) 

Also, Tagalog, Indonesian, Hakka, and many European languages also have their places in the city. 

Therefore, technically, anyone who speaks English can get around the city fine. This is the reason that many expats who have lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade do not feel the need to learn either Cantonese or Mandarin. Under this circumstance, learning Cantonese or Mandarin arises purely from curiosity and interests, imho, one of the best reasons to learn.

Cantonese or Mandarin?

The biggest advantage of learning Cantonese is that one will be learning a language in its native environment. Opportunities to interact with local people can motivate students, and help them make great progress in learning a language.

I think there are only two places offering such genuine Cantonese speaking environment. One is Hong Kong and the other Macao. Other cities in Guangdong region where Cantonese started, such as Guangzhou, the demography has changed greatly during the past decades due to the economic expansion. Millions of people came to live in Guangzhou from all over China to seek new opportunities and fortune. These late comers do not speak Cantonese. Therefore, in public spaces, I hear Mandarin all the time.

Hence, Cantonese is the number one choice for people who want to interact with local Hong Kong people. If anyone wants to interact more with Chinese people in the entire Greater China Region, Mandarin is the first choice.

Disadvantages of learning Mandarin in Hong Kong

The biggest advantage of learning Cantonese is the biggest disadvantage of learning Mandarin, that Hong Kong does not offer Mandarin learners a Mandarin speaking environment. If students want to be immersed in a Mandarin speaking environment, they need to go to Shenzhen, the nearest city to Hong Kong. Even though it is really convenient to go to there, and many people go often, Shenzhen is still a train ride away. 

Another issue is that traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong. Traditional characters and simplified characters are two overlapping writing systems of Chinese. For students who have learned simplified Chinese characters, they can only read partial prints in Hong Kong. And it takes time for them to adjust to the traditional characters. Again, they have to go to Shenzhen for a simplified Chinese character environment.

Advantages of learning Mandarin in Hong Kong

The first one is that Hong Kong makes great contributions to students’ experience outside of the Chinese classroom, which is as important as their experience inside the classroom. 

Hong Kong is the place to enjoy a hybrid culture of the East and the West, and appreciate Hong Kong’s distinctive identity. Traditional Chinese values are very much alive, emphasising family and education. Hong Kong people also adopted the best of the Western ideals, such as the freedom of press and the rule of law. Hong Kong offers a dazzling array of food choices, fantastic cultural events, interesting street performances, and active nightlife.

The second one is Hong Kong’s diversified language environment, which can put beginner students at ease. They don’t have to use Mandarin if they are not ready. For people who are fluent in Mandarin, they know they can communicate with half of the population.

The third one is that there are lots of choices of Chinese language schools in Hong Kong. I am one of them. And I have been fortunate to work with many dedicated and hardworking students. It is these students who shaped the structure and the content of my two series of Chinese textbooks. It is also these students who, with their endless patience, helped me design all the Chinese courses. I am so grateful for them to take Mandarin lessons with me.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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