Seven things you must know when learning Chinese in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the word “Chinese” as a language carries two meanings. Depending on who says it and when, it can be either “Cantonese” or “Mandarin”. And Hong Kong’s amazing hybrid culture makes it a good place to learn either of them.

There are some questions that are often raised by people who are interested in learning a new language in Hong Kong. For example, which language is more difficult, Cantonese or Mandarin? Which writing system is used in Hong Kong, traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese? Is learning Mandarin useful in Hong Kong? And so on.

Here we answer seven most important ones.

learn Chinese in Hong Kong

#1 Which language to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?

Cantonese and Mandarin are two dialects of Chinese. Both are worth learning.

There are people who believe that Mandarin is easier to learn than Cantonese because Mandarin has four tones while Cantonese has six or nine.

This is not true. Both languages are difficult. 

To decide on which language to learn, your primary goal matters. If you want to interact with local people, learn Cantonese. You can’t find a better place for learning Cantonese than Hong Kong.

If you are interested in learning Mandarin, keep reading.

#2 Is Hong Kong a good place to learn Mandarin?

Although Hong Kong does not offer a genuine Mandarin-speaking environment, Hong Kong is a fabulous place to learn Mandarin.

According to the By-Census in 2016, half of the Hong Kong population speak Mandarin. That makes it a decent environment for students to practice their Mandarin. 

Students don’t have to speak Mandarin when they are not ready. When they are, there are millions of people whom they can speak Mandarin with. 

For more information, read The Pros and Cons of Learning Mandarin in Hong Kong.

#3 Which writing system to study, traditional Chinese or simplified one?

There are people who resist simplified Chinese for the wrong reasons.

They don’t like it because it is a system used in mainland China which is controlled by the Communist Party. They believed that it was Mao Zedong who decided to simply Chinese characters after 1949 for the purpose of brainwashing Chinese people. They believed that simplified Chinese was ugly, for example is uglier than its traditional form .

Actually, the Chinese character simplification process began long before 1949. This idea was pushed forward by many intellectuals who were not communists. The reason for simplifying Chinese characters was to eradicate illiteracy in China. The principles applied to the simplification process borrowed heavily from ancient scripts and calligraphy art. 

It’s better to decide which writing system to learn after these misinformation is cleared.

Which one to learn, traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese? 

I believe it doesn’t matter as long as students stick to it until they are proficient readers.

Simplified Chinese is not easier to learn than traditional Chinese. Students still need to learn thousands of characters and tens of thousands of words to become proficient Chinese readers.

#4 How many characters do I need to study?

Many people are scared at the fact that they must learn thousands of Chinese characters to be able to read and write. 

It is true that they need thousands of characters and tens of thousands of words to become proficient Chinese readers. 

It is also true that beginner students can build up solid Chinese reading and writing skills with a couple of hundred characters. 

There are many different ways to learn Chinese characters. Finding the right approach helps a lot.

#5 Are Chinese characters pictures?

Chinese characters are visual, but only a very small portion of Chinese characters can be directly connected to pictures or physical objects.

Unfortunately, many books over-stretch the connections between Chinese characters and pictures, and hide the forest (Chinese texts) behind the trees (Chinese characters).

#6 Do I have to learn radicals to learn Chinese characters?

Strokes, components and radicals are three different kinds of units that make up Chinese characters. 

The development of the concept of radicals comes from one category of Chinese characters, pictographic characters.

There are people who believe that radicals explain the meanings of characters. Unfortunately it is not true. Some radicals may give a partial clue, but it is not enough to understand the meanings of characters.

Radicals sometimes do, sometimes don’t, help understand characters, and certainly do not help comprehend the extended meanings and usages of characters. 

Today, studying radicals does not offer a short cut of learning Chinese characters. It is not necessary to spend too much time on radicals.

#7 What do you need to achieve the success of learning Chinese?

There is a secret ingredient in the success of learning Chinese. It is being persistent. 

Being super smart of having a Chinese girl friend helps. But deep down, we all know that attitude and hard work matter the most.

If you’d like to amuse yourself a bit, read the story The Most Important Factor in the Success of Learning Chinese.


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