Monday, September 29, 2008

Languages of Hong Kong

The majority of the population in Hong Kong are descendants of migrants from mainland China. Smaller minority groups include expatriates, immigrants from Western and Asian countries such as India, Nepal, United Kingdom and the Philippines, and their descendants. The diverse population directly results in the rich variety of languages heard.

English and Chinese

and are both languages of Hong Kong under the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Official Languages Ordinance .

English was the sole official language of Hong Kong from 1883 to 1974. From 1974 onwards, Chinese also became an official language due to the increased population of ethnic Chinese in the city. 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 .

Government language policy

After the handover, the government of Hong Kong adopted the "biliterate and trilingual" policy. Under this policy, Chinese and English must both be , with being acknowledged as the ''de facto'' official spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong, while also accepting the use of Standard Mandarin.

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


Spoken Cantonese

The majority of the population in Hong Kong speak , a originating from Guangdong province. It is the main variety used in education, broadcasting, government administration, legislature and judiciary as well as in daily social communication.

China has numerous regional and local variants of spoken Chinese, many of which are mutually unintelligible. Most are only used in their own native areas, but some, particularly the various languages and dialects of Guangdong and Fujian, have spread to other areas by emigration from those provinces.

In the of Hong Kong, Toisanese and are common. In Yuen Long and Kam Tin, is common. Other forms like Waitau Wah are mostly associated with the elderly aged groups living in . The people from the fishing s is another group having their own variation of Cantonese.

Spoken Mandarin

Since Hong Kong had been the colony of United Kingdom, is not widely used in Hong Kong despite it has been the ''de facto'' official language of China since the time of Imperial China,

Despite the continuous effort of Chinese governments to promote Standard Mandarin as the official dialect within mainland China and the Sinosphere, many ethnic Chinese still maintain at least one native dialect for informal uses in addition to the formal Mandarin.

The similar practice applies for ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong, but with English as the formal language. Most Hongkongers maintain at least one native Chinese dialect for informal use in addition to the formal language. From mid-19th century to late-20th century, majority of Hongkonger have as their native Chinese dialect and as official language.

In the second half of 20th century, mainland China was scarred by poverty, cultural revolution, and illiteracy, with the additional problems of increased illegal immigrants from the mainland China to Hong Kong, Mandarin had long been associated with negativity in Hong Kong.

In the late 20th century, mainland China's economic situation improved under Deng Xiaoping's , and now described by some as a "emerging superpower" ".. After the 1997 handover, Hong Kong developed a closer 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 also integrated into the examinations in 2000. The government of Hong Kong has publicly encouraged students to be "biliterate and trilingual," thus adding Mandarin to the required arsenal of languages. Mandarin has also become an important asset in career advancements for adults. The usage of Mandarin in Hong Kong is also spreading to public service announcements, particularly on the metro and buses.

At least 4% of Hong Kong citizens speak a variety of Spoken Mandarin at home. Citation pending.

Written Chinese

Hong Kong uses standard modern written Chinese, which is most closely related to the grammar and vocabulary from the Mandarin dialects and is the standard formal written language for all Chinese speakers. However, it is different from spoken Cantonese in grammar and vocabulary.

There is also a writing system based on the vocabulary and grammar of spoken Cantonese, in which people write the way they speak. Written Cantonese is gaining popularity in newspapers and magazines for quotations and sections dealing with entertainment and local issues, but such writings are often unreadable to people outside Hong Kong or Macau. While it is considered non-standard by many educators, it is commonly used in Hong Kong. Written Cantonese does not have a standard set of characters but has essentially standardised itself over the years through convention. Some have credited this system to the challenges standard Chinese writing system have faced in pop cultures of the past.

Traditional Chinese characters are widely used, and are the ''de facto'' writing standard in Hong Kong. However there are some special Simplifications to written Chinese in Hong Kong, in addition to Mainland-style Simplified Chinese from posters, leaflets, flyers and signs in the tourist areas, to students using the simplified form in time-constrained exams. Nevertheless, Hong Kongers feel a sense of cultural attachment to Traditional Chinese, and the SAR seems unlikely to abandon them in the foreseeable future .


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 by the United Kingdom in 1997, English remains one of the official languages of Hong Kong as enshrined in the . So almost everything written is translated into both languages. For most of the population who are ethnically Chinese, it is a foreign language acquired from school education, taught since the kindergarten level. About 25% of secondary schools use English from Form 1 to Form 3 in all subjects except Chinese language and Chinese history. The percentage of English used is increased starting with Form 4. On average, it is rare for a Hongkonger of Chinese ethnicity to achieve a fluent command of English, and Chinese is required for most daily communication purposes outside districts frequented by tourists.

Code-switching between Cantonese and English

Many Hongkongers , or "code-switch", in the same sentence when speaking. For example, " make sense!" . The code-switching can freely mix English words and Chinese grammar, for instance " Un Un ?" which follows the Chinese grammar syntax 'verb - - verb' to ask "Do you ''''?". Notice also the shortening of 'understand' to 'un' since most Cantonese verbs are single syllables. Code-switchings have become rarer alongside the decrease of use of English since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Some code-switched words are used so often that they have become loanwords in Cantonese, for example,
*"like", pronounced "lai-kee".
*"Partner", pronounced "park-na".
*"File", pronounced "fai-lo".
*"Number", pronounced "lum-ba".
*"Case", pronounced "kei-see".

Transliterations in Hong Kong after 1997

Before 1997, Cantonese pronunciation was the basis for . After the handover, however, the media in Hong Kong began to adopt already established transliterations based on Mandarin pronunciations in order to align with the mainland. For example, Houston, which used to be transliterated as , has now become , and San Diego, formerly , has become . In some cases the Mandarin-based transliteration sounds far from the original when pronounced in Cantonese. For example, Wal-Mart is transliterated as ; when pronounced in Cantonese, the name becomes ''juk1 ji5 maa5''.

Other European languages


In Hong Kong, is the 3rd most studied foreign language behind English and Japanese. Many institutions in Hong Kong, like Alliance fran?aise, 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 standards. The IGCSE French syllabus used by the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate is adopted in the examination. The only French book store, Librairie Parentheses, in Hong Kong is located on , .

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 s 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.


The exact number of speakers in Hong Kong is unclear, but the number is significant enough for the establishment of the German Swiss International School , which claims to number more than 1,000 students, at of Hong Kong Island.. 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 . 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 , in parallel with the French stream.

Other East Asian languages


There are more than 25,000 Japanese people in Hong Kong, so it is common to hear conversations. If English was not the required second language, Japanese would be the dominant foreign language. More than 10,000 people in Hong Kong took the JLPT in 2005. ATV World broadcasts a TV programme for teaching Japanese. However, mis-use of the language is common.

Japanese culture, including anime, manga, sushi and pop music, has been popular in Hong Kong for decades. Sometimes Hong Kongers replace Chinese characters with Japanese words. For example, Aji Ichiban, a snack and candy chain, uses the hiragana in place of the Chinese character , rendering their name as . Another example would be the use of the Japanese kanji to substitute , as in Nu Front , 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 Kongers as if they were their Chinese counterparts . The Japanese Kanji is actually the shinjitai of the Chinese character . However, refers to posts for horses in ancient times, and, in modern Chinese, has been replaced by , which refers to stops for vehicles. Some people pronounce as if it were the Chinese character , according to the folk wisdom ''you bian du bian'' , an often false rule for reading unknown characters.


Koreans in Hong Kong only make up a small minority. Korean culture has gained in popularity since early 2000s. Korean pop music was the first medium to penetrate Hong Kong's market. Afterwards, several Korean TV series such as Dae Jang Geum have also been shown across a large audience base. McDonald's restaurants in Hong Kong used a Korean catchphrase, ''Dea Dan Heyo'' , in one of their commercials in 2005.


is used in Hong Kong among who had initially settled in Vietnam then relocated to Hong Kong. Vietnamese 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 of many Hong Kongers living in that era. The beginning words, "B?t ??u t? nay", which mean "from now on", are probably the only Vietnamese phrase that most non-Vietnamese in Hong Kong know. The phrase ''B?t ??u t? nay'' was then used by some locals to disparagingly refer to the Vietnamese people.

Southeast Asian languages


and other are used by Filipinos in Hong Kong, most of whom are employed as s. 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 es in Hong Kong that have or in Tagalog, for example the afternoon masses provided by the in Central.


is the common language for the significant number of , though is also widely spoken. Most are domestic workers; on their days off, they often gather at in Causeway Bay to socialize and the language can be heard.


prevails among the , who are mostly working as domestic workers. The Thai language can be 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 '''', ''Jan Dara'', the ''Iron Ladies'', ''My Little Girl'', and '''' and ''Tom-Yum-Goong'' starring Tony Jaa.

South Asian languages

There is a significant number of South Asians in Hong Kong. Signboards written in Hindi or Urdu can be seen, and conversation in South Asian languages including , and , as well as Urdu and Hindi, 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 1044 jointly launched radio shows ''Hong Kong-Pak Tonight'' in Urdu and ''Harmo Sagarmatha'' in Nepalese.

Middle Eastern languages


is used frequently among members of Muslim communities in Hong Kong. The University of Hong Kong is presently the only tertiary institution in Hong Kong offering Arabic-language courses. Some Islamic organisations do teach the language as well, but the current status can best be described as up-and-coming.


*Bruce, Nigel .
*Pennington, Martha C. ed. . ''Language in Hong Kong at Century's End''. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962209418X.

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