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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 of Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong.


Cantonese is what local Chinese people speak in Hong Kong. 

What is really interesting is that there are two versions of Cantonese. One version is what people speak on the street and what is used in tabloid newspapers. The other version appears in official announcements, government websites and mainstream Chinese media. The second version is basically modern standard Chinese with Cantonese pronunciations.

What I read and hear is often a mixture of these two versions of Cantonese.

Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong.


Mandarin is the modern standard Chinese. It is also called Putonghua in China.

Different from Hong Kong, simplified Chinese is used in mainland China.

In Hong Kong, half of the population speak Mandarin. Anyone who studied traditional Chinese for years at school would have no problem at reading simplified Chinese. 

However, language is a political issue in Hong Kong. 

Although the simplification process of traditional Chinese characters happened long before the establishment of PRC, simplified Chinese is often connected unfavourably with ugliness and brainwashing. Mandarin is connected unfavourable with invading Mainland Chinese.

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. 

However, all these universities require students to use English both in class and to complete their assignments. 

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. The purpose of these schools is to help these minority children integrate into the mainstream society. 

However, report has shown that this policy failed. Also, poor minority students could not get admitted into the local universities because their Chinese score is too low.

What’s next?

In terms of language abilities, there are many areas that are disconnected.

For the majority of local Chinese students in Hong Kong, entering a local university is an abrupt change in terms of the teaching language, from teaching in Cantonese to teaching in English. Very often, we see students’ English skills are inadequate. 

For tho poor minority students in Hong Kong, they spend so much time and effort in learning Cantonese and traditional characters, which have little value outside of Hong Kong. 

Only the rich Chinese and expat children have the best of all. They do not face an abrupt language change when going to a university. Their Mandarin skills are widely applicable. 

I think Hong Kong needs some changes in its language policy.