Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a diversified language terrain. Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Tagalog, Hakka, and many European languages, all have their representatives in the city. In this article, we will take a brief look at the complexity that Cantonese and Mandarin have brought us.


Although Chinese is considered one of the two official languages in Hong Kong, it is not the Cantonese language as people use on the street. Rather, it is a mixture of Cantonese and modern standard Chinese. 

In daily life, people speak Cantonese, and occasionally government officials deliver speeches in Cantonese. I also see LegCo members fought with one another in Cantonese on TV. However, when it comes to official announcements, government websites and notices, it is the modern standard Chinese being used, which is also the language used by major Chinese newspapers. Cantonese is primarily used in tabloid newspapers and advertisements. 

For the writing system, traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong media.


Mandarin is the modern standard Chinese. It is also called Putonghua in China. Many people thought it is also Beijinghua. It is not. Beijinghua is not Putonghua. 

Different from Hong Kong, simplified Chinese is used in mainland China. If you’re interested, read more about the simplification process of traditional Chinese characters here.

In Hong Kong, half of the population speak Mandarin. Anyone who have studied traditional Chinese for years at school would have virtually no problem at reading simplified Chinese. However, language is a politically charged issue. It is quite sensitive to many people as where Mandarin was utilised or where simplified characters appeared.

Who learns what

The mainstream society consists primarily local Chinese people. They speak Cantonese as their mother tongue, read and write traditional Chinese characters. They send their children to local schools, where Cantonese is the teaching and learning medium. Mandarin is one of the school subjects, which is taught in traditional characters. Students’ effort is mostly to learn how to pronounce these texts in Mandarin. After they graduate from secondary schools, they probably go to one of the eight universities which are subsidised by the government. But all these universities require students to use English both in class and to complete their assignments. Very often, we see students’ English skills are inadequate. 

For rich Chinese and expat families, they send their children to international schools, where English is the teaching and learning medium. Students do not learn Cantonese. They learn Mandarin. And frequently they learn simplified Chinese characters. After they graduate from secondary schools, they’re likely to go to universities in the US or the UK, where they can adapt to the English language environment quickly and their Mandarin skills become an advantage.

There are also many poor non-Chinese minorities living in Hong Kong. Their children go to designated schools where they are supposed to learn Cantonese and traditional characters so that they could integrate into the mainstream society. However, report has shown that this policy so far has failed. Students could not get admitted into the local universities because their Chinese score is too low.

What’s next?

Honestly, I have no idea, except that more work is needed to explore accepted ways which can enhance the competitiveness of Hong Kong in terms of language abilities. We have got so much potentials here. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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