Hong Kong is a vibrant and bustling tourist destination, popular with backpackers and gap year students especially, but just how widely spoken is English there? Can a short term visitor expect to get by just by speaking English there?
The prevalence of English in Hong Kong is actually surprisingly low, even though it is a former British colony.
Estimates suggest that between 46-53% of people in Hong Kong are able to speak English. Mandarin is the other official language, with around half the population speaking that as well, whilst Cantonese is the most widespread language with almost the entire population speaking it.
Hong Kong was actually a British colony until fairly recently, with full control of the territory finally being handed over to China in 1997. Therefore there are definitely some distinct remnants of British culture and language there, with signs in all major cities also displayed in English. The actual proficiency of English though is lower than you might expect, with estimates of the population who can speak it ranging from around 46% to around 53%.
Where You Will Be Fine With English
That said, that does not mean you won’t be able to get by with English, since it will be widely spoken in the major tourist areas that most people visit, such as Central, Admirality, Kowloon Tong, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, Clearwater Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. You should be fine using English in larger shops, restaurants and hotels in these main built up areas, and all menus will be in English as well.
Similarly, any time you are dealing with police, immigration and other public sector officials, they will also likely speak decent English as they are required to do so as part of their job. Any time you are stuck or need directions – your best bet is to find a policeman! 50% of the population is also a pretty decent ratio in it’s own right, so even if a person you stop doesn’t speak English, they will be able to wave over someone that does.
Be aware though that even the English that is spoken in Hong Kong is a local dialect of English, with it’s own accents, phrases and pronunciation. It may take a few days to adjust to the how the locals pronounce certain words. See here for a breakdown of where some of the pronunciation is different from what you might be used to.
Where You Might Struggle
Any time you venture away from these main tourist areas, you will find the prevalence of English becomes less. Smaller restaurants and shops in less central areas and also taxi drivers are some scenarios where you may struggle, though as we said they will often be able to call over someone who does speak English. If you stay in some less luxurious hotels (3 star or less) or deal with older people over 60, then also expect less people to speak English.
For taxi drivers, always have your hotel business card or key with the name/address on ready to present in case there are any language issues. Also have your hotel staff write down the names of places you want to visit in Cantonese to hand to cab drivers to avoid any confusion with where you want to go.
For some of the smaller and medium sized restaurants, some of the waiters may not be able to speak much English. If this happens they usually just call over the manager or someone else who does speak English. Having some basic phrases in the local language also helps – see our section below. One way or another you can still get by.
In general since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Mandarin has become the more important language, with the emphasis on English declining, although there have been some efforts to improve the teaching of English in schools.
Cantonese is still by far the most widespread language despite not being recognized as official, with around 97% of the population speaking it, so this is the language to learn if you plan to go off the beaten track and want to get by easier.
Tourist experiences are actually somewhat mixed on the issue of how prevalent English was when they were there. Some people report being able to go for many days in a row there only speaking English and get on fine; others reported they were surprised by the lack of English there and did sometime struggle to be understood.
Some tourists there were perhaps expecting English to be pretty much spoken as standard, being a former colony, and found that is wasn’t. Before the 1997 handover, everyone was speaking English; now less so as the Chinese influence has grown.
Given that is the case then it can always come in handy to learn some basic Cantonese phrases to get by in case you run into someone who does not speak so much English. Pronunciation of some of the more common phrases is actually not too difficult; lets take a look at some Cantonese words.
Learning Some Basic Cantonese
We were deciding whether to include Mandarin or Cantonese as the language to learn for short or long term visitors. Mandarin is technically the official language alongside English, but is still not very widespread with only half the population speaking it.
Therefore we have included some basic Cantonese phrases instead, since despite it not being an official language, it is still the de facto main language with nearly all the population speaking it.
Therefore if you are going somewhere where English is not so prevalent, or you just want to learn a few phrases to impress the locals, Cantonese is the language that is always going to be understood in Hong Kong. English and Mandarin are fairly common but still hit and miss; Cantonese is nearly universal. Here are some basic greetings and phrases to help you get by.
|English||Pronounced in Cantonese as|
|Please/Thankyou/Excuse me||Mm goy|
|Sorry (minor)||Mm ho ee see|
|Sorry (major)||Doyiy m-chi|
|You're welcome||M sigh haak hey|
|Thank you (for gift)||Dah cheh|
|See you later||Tee dee geen|
|I am.....||Naor hi.......|
|How are you lately?||Nai cha gan deem ah?|
|What time is it?||Yi gah geh dim?|
|Where is.....?||..........hi been aah? (say location first)|
|Where is the bathroom?||Sigh sow han hi been aah?|
|The check/bill please||My dan, mm-goy|
|How much is it?||Gay dow tee-na?|
- Essential stats on Hong Kong:
- Population: 7.2 million
- Time zone: EST +13 hours; GMT +8 hours.
- Currency: Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) ($1 = 7.84 HKD; £1= 9.27 HKD at time of writing)
- International calling code: +852 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the left
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Hong Kong Dollar) and spend for free on your card, as well as drawn out a certain amount of local currency for free each month.