English language standards in Hong Kong, how well is it spoken?

Part 1 of the “Life in Hong Kong: Expectation vs. Reality” series

Expectation:
English is widely spoken in Hong Kong.

Reality:
The short answer is: “Yes, English is widely spoken in Hong Kong, compared to China, Japan and a few other Asian countries, that is”.

Now for the long (and more realistic answer) answer.
English is one of the two official languages in Hong Kong (the other being Cantonese), so you will never get lost, as all road signs are in English as well as Chinese. You will never have trouble filling out forms, as they are all bilingual, and you will be able to go to the cinema, where non English speaking films have English subtitles. You can read the local news in the South China Morning Post, or the free paper The Standard, and if you feel the need for an official Chinese communist party propaganda fix, then the China Daily is there to satisfy your cravings – in English. A reasonably good selection of English bookshops are scattered around central Hong Kong, and plenty of information is available online to the English speaking community – which pretty much sums up expats of all nationalities.

English is however the language of the expat community and of those ‘locals’ that often refer to themselves as Bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), ABCs, BBCs or CBCs (American/Australian, British or Canadian Born Chinese). These individuals almost always speak perfect English but are more often than not part of the so-called expat community. Although less proficiently, the language is also spoken by almost all of the Filipino, Indian and Indonesian community of Hong Kong, which for socio-economic reasons do not fall under the “expat community” label. Finally, you will be able to have a proper conversation with those local Hong Kong people who have been privileged enough to be able to afford the very high international school fees.

If you want to escape the expat bubble and really, truly get to know the local community, it is surprising how poor the standard of English is amongst the Hong Kong population, including school aged children and teenagers. This is particularly interesting considering that the language is taught to schoolchildren from Kindergarten. Compared to a similar ex British colony, Singapore, Hong Kong that calls itself Asia’s World City, has a lot of catching up to do.

My curiosity got the better of me so I started to look into the matter and asked those I could, why they thought the level of English in Hong Kong was so low. The main reasons given were:

– Lack of speaking opportunities. Locals speak Cantonese at home, in school, with friends and colleagues. They simply do not have the opportunity to practice what they learn in the few hours a week they study English in school.
– Lack of native English speakers in public schools. There are plenty of private tutors and Language courses, but by then it is often too late and the students are adults who need to improve what they learnt in school.
– The increased importance of Mandarin. It is no secret that China’s economy is growing while the West’s is struggling. Many Hong Kong people’s livelihoods are increasingly becoming tied to the mainland’s economy so Mandarin is seen as the more important language to focus on.

Overall, English is spoken in central Hong Kong and those areas where there are expat communities. However, once you wonder out of these areas communication will almost always be limited to a few simple words, hand gestures and the use of smart phones to show images or maps of what you are looking for.

This article is part of the “Life in Hong Kong: Expectation vs. Reality” series. Other articles include:

“English is widely spoken in Hong Kong”

“Hong Kong is a great launch pad for travelling around Asia

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Angelina DraperArticle by Angelina Draper (53 Posts)

Angelina is the Founding Editor of ChattyBrains.com and Managing Director of AD Vits Digital, where she helps companies of all sized achieve optimal branding, e-commerce and social media success and overall great digital health. Living currently in her 26th home (and counting) she is a serial wonderer having been an expat child, expat in her own right and now expat wife and mother. Three continents and seven countries later she is still looking forward to settling down... one day.


Angelina Draper

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Angelina is the Founding Editor of ChattyBrains.com and Managing Director of AD Vits Digital, where she helps companies of all sized achieve optimal branding, e-commerce and social media success and overall great digital health. Living currently in her 26th home (and counting) she is a serial wonderer having been an expat child, expat in her own right and now expat wife and mother. Three continents and seven countries later she is still looking forward to settling down... one day.