Languages in Hong Kong

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Axon
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Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Sat Aug 25, 2018 4:27 am

I will be traveling to Hong Kong for four or five days in the beginning of September, doing some visa things.

I've heard a number of conflicting things about the language situation in Hong Kong. I'm a young white American who can comfortably speak everyday Mandarin and some tourist Cantonese. Wherever I go, I prefer to use the language that people are most comfortable in if I can. Generally, in a shop I'll use the language that the workers were using among themselves as I approach - this has never gotten me a negative reaction. A few times I've been more bold and answered in the national language when addressed in English by someone who's clearly not as comfortable with English.

So what should I do in Hong Kong cafes and restaurants? I'll definitely go to more out of the way places; since I have to wait a few days for the visa I'll try and cover quite a bit of ground. I'm assuming that I'll be addressed in English every single time, everywhere.

What do local Hong Kongers think of people with limited Cantonese? Is it like Taipei where (I've heard) foreigners with fluent local language ability are more and more common, and thus it's expected that a visitor will know some Cantonese? Is there any situation where good Mandarin would be taken better than halting Cantonese and native English?
Last edited by Axon on Sat Aug 25, 2018 7:25 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Adrianslont » Sat Aug 25, 2018 5:40 am

Not a local Hong Konger, nor a speaker of Cantonese or Mandarin (well, maybe a 100 poorly pronounced words, mostly food) but I can answer a couple of your questions as a white guy who has visited Hong Kong a few times.

You won’t be addressed in English “every single time, everywhere” especially in out of the way places - you will be addressed in expectant silence or Cantonese or Mandarin or English. I think you will be surprised by how many Hong Kongers seem reluctant to use their English or don’t really have any. Of course there is much stronger English in hotels and in the more heavily touristed locations - (though not necessarily in a simple cafe). I think your tourist level Cantonese and strong Mandarin will be very useful and appreciated.

It’s been six years since I’ve been there and the whole world seems to be getting better at English fast so things may have changed a little, especially with younger folk. Anyway, I’m interested to hear what you find!
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby tarvos » Wed Aug 29, 2018 9:20 am

Just start with Canto. If they don't understand it, you can always try Mandarin or English.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Thu Aug 30, 2018 7:38 am

So nobody's going to take it poorly if I open in Cantonese? That's good to know.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Thu Aug 30, 2018 3:49 pm

Worst comes to worst you can always write them notes in hanzi. That’s what my mom did when she was once hospitalized in Hong Kong. She speaks Mandarin, the nurses only spoke Cantonese and no English. They were thrilled she was able to communicate. I think they won’t expect any Chinese at all from you, beginner Cantonese will be great.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby smallwhite » Sat Sep 01, 2018 3:49 am

> What do local Hong Kongers think of people with limited Cantonese? Is it like Taipei where (I've heard) foreigners with fluent local language ability are more and more common, and thus it's expected that a visitor will know some Cantonese? Is there any situation where good Mandarin would be taken better than halting Cantonese and native English?

1. Visitors are not expected to speak any Cantonese. We don't have the notion of learning a country's language as courtesy and respect.

2. We get annoyed when immigrants from China can't manage everyday Cantonese. We don't expect Western immigrants to know any Cantonese.

3. When we can't understand your English or can't respond in English properly, we feel very, very embarrassed.

4. When we can't understand your Cantonese, we will feel embarrassed for you and will feel uneasy. Let people know you don't mind if you want to practise or if you want honest feedback, etc.

5. English is a compulsory school subject so people who have better academic grades are likely to have better English. So people in business suits are more likely to have better English than truck drivers. But the truck driver may have studied in an English-speaking high school and still manage some English now. It's really hard to generalise, especially since we're only talking about listening skills here. Reading is usually not a problem. Also, some families have Filipina domestic helpers and speak English every day; these are not necessarily rich families. Many people may have studied overseas but you don't know if they mingled with the locals. And then there are the immigrants from China who know next to no English - how can you tell them from the local Hongkongers?

6. Some schools offer Mandarin while some don't, some people watch Mandarin TV while some don't, so you can't tell who understands it and who doesn't. Yet we have many immigrants from mainland China who might be Mandarin native speakers.

7. Just use any language you want to. It doesn't really bother us much.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby smallwhite » Sat Sep 01, 2018 8:42 am

When you speak English, it would be easier for us to understand you if you:
1. lengthen the vowel - "wheeere iiis theee baaathrooom" - rather than inserting pauses between syllables.
2. syllable-time rather than stress-time - "aaambiiiguuuiiityyy"
3. and the usual things like slowing down, simplifying and not using idioms and slangs
4. if someone who basically understands English asks you to repeat, repeat. Don't rephrase or switch rightaway. They may just need a second listen (think listening exams). It'd be more confusing for them if you keep saying different sentences :shock:

Form 6 (Year 12) English is B2~C1 afterall, so if you speak as above then most people should understand you.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Sat Sep 01, 2018 1:49 pm

Lawyer&Mom wrote:Worst comes to worst you can always write them notes in hanzi.


Thank you! Very resourceful thinking on the part of your mom there.

smallwhite wrote:4. When we can't understand your Cantonese, we will feel embarrassed for you and will feel uneasy. Let people know you don't mind if you want to practise or if you want honest feedback, etc.
...
7. Just use any language you want to. It doesn't really bother us much.


I'm almost certainly overthinking this, I know. I'll be there in less than 24 hours and I'll probably just open in Cantonese if I can find the words, open in clear English if I can't.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Sun Sep 02, 2018 3:11 pm

Day 1:

(it's only 4 days, this isn't going to be a long log or anything. I thought it might be useful for other travelers if I continue the thread to write my own impressions)

Hong Kong is way different than I expected. I am in the North Point area. I hear many languages on the streets, so far Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian, Mandarin, and Cantonese besides English. I don't know if I'm in a predominantly Malay area or what but I want to speak it very much now that I hear it all over.

At the airport and hotel, I was addressed in native-like English by people ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. I tried to speak clearly but my brain classified them as native speakers and I just spoke naturally after the first few words. No misunderstandings.

At convenience stores, I asked for shampoo in clear English and the older staff members replied in accented yet perfectly fluent English.

At a Chinese style fast-food restaurant, I was addressed in "expectant silence" (as Adrianslont predicted). I ordered in clear English, which went nowhere, and then tried again in extremely poor Cantonese. The order got through but communication broke down when I was offered a drink as part of a set meal. Another staff member stepped in and took the rest of my order in native-like English. I asked a different waiter in better Cantonese if there was Wifi and he understood and answered in Cantonese. I got up to pay and the cashier told me the total in Cantonese.

At a McDonalds, I bought an ice cream in English and then asked the middle-aged cashier in Cantonese what it was called. She expounded on the name and said many things I didn't understand.

At a fruit stall, I asked for a bottle of water and clarified upon request that I wanted the large one in poor Cantonese. I failed to understand the price and gave less cash than was required, at which point the transaction switched to pointing and hand signs.

(poor Cantonese = thinking in Mandarin and applying lexical and sound shifts to guess how to say things.
better Cantonese = thinking in Cantonese and constructing sentences with Cantonese words and phrases)
Last edited by Axon on Mon Sep 03, 2018 1:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Adrianslont » Sun Sep 02, 2018 3:45 pm

Interesting,eh?

You might have heard so much Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian because today is Sunday. Sunday is the usual day off for domestic help. Were they all women in a certain age range? Were they gathered in parks? Or near parcel forwarding companies?

My first time in Hong Kong, in my first hour I wandered into a park and right into the middle of hundreds of maids speaking those languages, cutting hair, playing cards, sharing meals, wrapping packages to send home and generally socialising. The same phenomenon happens in Singapore.
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