A lot of foreigners live many years in Hong Kong without picking up a word of Cantonese – and it’s clear why. You can thrive here without it, and rarely find yourself in a situation where language breaks down. English is spoken everywhere expats congregate, and you’ll be interacting with other non-Chinese a great deal. But if you’re interested and are willing to put in some time and effort, you’ll be rewarded by a better understanding of local culture and gain the appreciation of your Chinese colleagues and friends – not to mention the business benefits of demonstrating a little linguistic competence and showing that you don’t take people communicating with you in English for granted.

Matters linguistic are actually a little fraught in Hong Kong. English has been widely spoken for a long time, but not always particularly well spoken, and most taxi drivers, shop staff and so on will only speak a few words. This can be easy to miss in an expat bubble where it sometimes seems that everyone we encounter is fluent. Without doubt, it has long been the second language of Hong Kong, and certainly the language of international business; and it’s an official language here, meaning street signs, government resources, transport signage and the like is all bilingual. However, this is a new age and Mandarin is coming on strong. Kids are learning it in school and it is now arguably as widely and well spoken as English – helped of course by the fact that, while very different and not mutually comprehensible, Cantonese and Mandarin are essentially dialects of the same core language. There can be tension between Mainlanders and locals over which language should be used, not helped by the unfortunate perception of tourists from over the border as less cultured and less polite. And of course, the hundred million people who live in Guangdong Province next door are also native Cantonese speakers.

Foreigners get to sidestep this, but we still have to decide – study Cantonese or Mandarin? Or both? This depends on why you’re learning and how long you plan to stay. If you’re going to live here a few years and have no plans to live in Mainland China, stick to Cantonese. That’s what you’ll hear around you every day. If you’re going to be doing a lot of business with Mainland Chinese, consider Mandarin. It’s the language of the future, and you can chat to tourists to practise (and of course there are plenty of native Mandarin speakers living in Hong Kong, too). Learning basic pleasantries in both languages might make the most sense, before making a decision on more serious study in one of them.

Whichever you choose, you’ll be told they are impossibly difficult languages, only mastered by intensive study and the kind of immersion that most people don’t have the time or energy for. This perception is bolstered by the fact that it’s a point of local pride that Chinese tongues are nigh on impossible for the non-genius gweilo (thus the wild praise offered to anyone who can say hello). But this just isn’t the case. Yes, the characters and the tones make it a lot harder than most languages for Westerners; and yes, this does mean it takes a longer time to develop a facility than you might hope. But it’s still a language with verbs and nouns like any other (and very straightforward grammar), and a good combination of teacher and textbook, as well as putting some time into it, will see you communicating in no time.

Hong Kong Cantonese is a tonal language, with six tones in practice – the meaning of sounds, and the character that goes with them, is completely different based on the tone used. Pronunciation is tricky anyway, but this is the aspect that causes most problems for Western learners. Don’t worry about saying something rude by getting the tone wrong – that’s a myth, you’ll simply won’t be understood. Mandarin is slightly easier with four main tones.

Chinese characters are the main wrinkle that makes study difficult for expats, since they are not phonetic and simply have to be memorized gradually over time – 2,500-3,000 to read a newspaper is a common estimate. Many people never go near the characters at all, simply studying through the standardised phonetic form (pinyin) used to aid learners. This is a matter of how far you plan to go – if you’ll just be here a couple of years and simply want to communicate, stick with that. If you want to one day be an advanced speaker, start learning characters as you go right away. Don’t wait until you reach intermediate level and suddenly all the textbooks are in characters and you’re lost.

Well, at least Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written form, right? Sadly, no. Mainland characters were simplified in the 1950s – just Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan use traditional characters now – so now even Mainlanders have difficulty reading in Hong Kong, though their problems pale compared to ours. Of course, the structure of sentences and phrasing also varies, even if the characters were the same. The traditional characters are considered more attractive and logical, but for foreigners simplified Chinese is considerably easier to get a grip on. Which one you study simply comes down to the choice between Cantonese and Mandarin.

There are plenty of language schools in Hong Kong and any kind of course you need is out there, from full-time university courses to two nights a week in a language center – we suggest some below, but there are many more good ones. Stick to established places with experienced teachers, rather than trying to go for language exchange, at least until you reach a decent level and can get something out of the latter. Shop around and ask friends for recommendations.

Do some online exploration too. For Cantonese, try CantoneseClass101. For Mandarin, ChinesePod is a great podcast and Web resource, while Skritter is the best place to practise simplified characters.

Hong Kong Language Courses

Hong Kong Language Learning Centre

Spacious, centrally located language center with a friendly atmosphere, offering both Cantonese and Mandarin classes of various types.
Rm 604 Emperor Group Centre, 288 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai
2572 6488

Hong Kong Language School

Corporate and personal training courses in both Cantonese and Mandarin, with maximum class size of six students.
Rm 1701-2, Tung Chiu Commercial Centre, 193 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
3622 2558

Hong Kong Institute of Languages

Long-established language center with Cantonese and Mandarin classes for all ages as well as corporate packages.
3/F, 5-6/F Wellington Plaza, 56-58 Wellington St, Central
2877 6160

Hong Kong Mandarin School

Despite the name, offers Cantonese as well, including business and children’s courses of various durations and times.
2/F, Dah Sing Life Building, 99 Des Voeux Road, Central
2287 5072

Global Language Centre

Offers small classes in Mandarin and Cantonese from experienced teachers, with a varied class schedule.
5/F Hong Kong Trade Centre, 161-167 Des Voeux Road, Central
2151 2387

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