Monday, January 12, 2009

Talk in Hong Kong

Cantonese is the language spoken by 95% of the people in Hong Kong. Due to British influences from the colonial era, colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong tends to incorporate some English words and slang, which may sound strange to Cantonese speakers from mainland China. Though Hong Kong is a former British colony, the degree of English proficiency is limited among non-professionals in those districts where more locals visit than tourists. Also, some locals, even if they can understand English well, do not feel comfortable speaking it. However, others including most taxi drivers, street vendors, salespeople etc. are fluent enough for sufficient communication, especially at tourist destinations such as hotels and certain restaurants. English is spoken fluently among the business community. English language education usually starts in kindergarten. To ensure that local people understand you, it is a good idea to speak in short sentences, use standard English and avoid slang or colloquial expressions.

Hong Kong also has several minority communities, such as the Teochews (Chiuchow in Cantonese) and Shanghainese who fled to Hong Kong when the mainland fell to the communists in 1949. Some of them still speak their respective dialects, though most of them are also fluent in Cantonese. There are also non-Chinese resident communities in Hong Kong, largely originating from the Indian subcontinent, and among them, various South Asian languages are spoken, though it should not cause much of a problem as almost all of them are fluent in English and many are fluent in Cantonese as well.

Most locals are not fluent in Mandarin, but can comprehend it to a certain degree. Mandarin proficiency is increasing, especially after the reunification with the Mainland. Due to the increasing number of tourists from mainland China, most (if not all) shops and eateries in the city centre and more touristy areas will have at least one staff member who can speak Mandarin.

All official signs are bilingual, in both Chinese (Traditional) and English. However, Chinese only signs have become more common in recent years, e.g. at minibus stops. Most shops and restaurants also have English signage, though don't expect this from the more local or obscure establishments. Under the "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong continues to use traditional Chinese characters and not the simplified Chinese characters used in Mainland China.