Do You Need to Learn Cantonese Phrases When Visiting Hong Kong?

Frankly, you are wasting your time

Let me make this crystal clear, these are my personal opinions and I am sure many people will disagree but it is a question I am asked a lot and I always give the same answer. That’s right you are wasting your time.

all image contributions acknowledged

I have lived in Hong Kong for 35 years and yes to my eternal shame I have not progressed beyond good morning / please and thank you, well actually it is not shame or embarrassment I feel at all, I learnt from a very early age that I did not have the ear or the ability to learn a second language, that is nothing to be ashamed of, I think many people have the same problem.

My wife can pass for a native in 3 languages and that is impressive and I am in awe of her ability, but just because I cannot speak Cantonese (which has to be one of the worlds most difficult languages to learn) does not make me stupid and I should not have to apologise for this.

I do not think that speaking just English in Hong Kong has hindered me in anyway over the 35 years I have been here, Hong Kong is pretty much these days tri - lingual with Cantonese and English being the 2 major languages with Mandarin now the 3rd official language and it should be pointed out that many Chinese people in Hong Kong do not speak Mandarin.

I digress, the point is that I do not think there is any point either buying phrase books / audio books etc or taking the time to learn “important” phrases, because 99 times out of a 100 no one will understand a word you are saying, I have tried many times to say “Star Ferry” in Cantonese and according to my wife, it sounds perfect but a taxi driver will give me a blank look, in essence the Taxi Driver is expecting you to speak English so the his / her brain does not compute and your phrase is blanked out.

To cut a long story short, I gave up trying and in any event pretty much every taxi driver understands Star Ferry in English.

Now, this is the important point, the Chinese people in Hong Kong recognise that Cantonese is an extremely difficult language to learn so they have no expectations that a Westerner can actually speak it, so this nonsensical clap trap I have heard over the years that you will offend people by at least not trying is exactly that, nonsensical clap trap. Frankly, they would much rather you speak English so they can hone their English skills and I am only too happy to oblige.

I have read hundreds of articles about Hong Kong and this is a fact, every “writer” that gives you a list of common phrases to learn does this, they give you the English version of a Chinese phrase ie, to me Star Ferry is Chin Sing Ma Tao and yet every expert writes a completely different phrase so if you read 100 articles you get 100 ways to say Chin Sing Ma Tao or Star Ferry and still no one will understand you... confusing, right.

So if you think you are going to go to a market (with your Cantonese phrase book handy) and get the bargain of a lifetime then forget it, no one gives a blind sausage, they wont understand you, and if anything, they will be either annoyed or amused at your bastardisation of their ancient language.  Stick to English.


...and yes, if you are determined, then just learn to say please, thank you and good morning, even I can manage that.

And just when you thought I had finished... if you completely ignore the above (which is always an option!) you do face the problem of “fluency” lets say for arguments sake you master a phrase or two of say, asking for a price of a product and then saying too expensive after being quoted a price, the shop keeper / stall holder may then assume you are fluent in Cantonese and then you are totally stuffed as they will then launch into a lengthy speech which of course you will not understand, it can all get a bit embarrasing.

Like I said, stick to English.


Jamie Lloyd

J3 Tours Hong Kong

[For more information on Hong Kong, check Discover Hong Kong's Facebook page!]

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