Seven things you must know when learning Chinese in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the word “Chinese” as a language carries two meanings. Depending on who says it and when, it can be either “Cantonese” or “Mandarin”. And although traditional Chinese characters are used as the default Chinese writing system, books and publications printed in simplified Chinese are also available in bookstores and libraries. 

Hence the confusion arises. Which language should I learn, Cantonese or Mandarin? Which one is more difficult to learn? Which writing system should I learn, the traditional Chinese or the simplified Chinese? Is learning simplified Chinese easier than learning the traditional Chinese? Is learning Mandarin useful in Hong Kong? Do local Hong Kong people speak Mandarin?

To clear up these questions, I summed up seven points which non-Chinese speakers must know when learning Chinese in Hong Kong.

#1 Which language to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?

Cantonese and Mandarin are two dialects of Chinese. Both are worth learning. If you want to pick an easy one to learn, you might be disappointed. There are people who say that, since Cantonese has six or nine tones while Mandarin has four, Cantonese is easier to learn. This is simply not true. 

From a student’s point of view, it is difficult to master either Cantonese or Mandarin, let alone to be proficient at both. It is probably the best to focus on one of the languages, while picking up some expressions of the other if interested. As Cantonese and Mandarin share a broad base of language structures and words, it is quite achievable. For a detailed comparison of Cantonese and Mandarin, read here.

To decide on which language to learn, your primary goal matters. If you want to interact with local people and to read local newspapers and publications, learn Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters. Learn everything you can and as much as you can. You can’t find a better place for learning Cantonese than Hong Kong. 

For people who are more interested in learning Mandarin in Hong Kong, keep reading.

#2 Is Hong Kong a good place to learn Mandarin?

“Mandarin is not very useful in Hong Kong, because local people speak Cantonese.” You might have heard this, it is unfortunately a mis-information. 

It is true that Hong Kong does not offer a genuine Mandarin-speaking environment, the biggest disadvantage of learning the language, Hong Kong is actually a fabulous place to learn Mandarin. 

The number one reason is Hong Kong’s amazing hybrid culture, which students can always rely on when they are stressed out in the classroom. They don’t have to speak Mandarin when they are not ready. And this is true for Cantonese learners as well.

The second reason is that 48.6% (based on the By-Census in 2016) of the Hong Kong population speak Mandarin. When you are ready, there are millions of people whom you can speak Mandarin with. 

To read a more elaborate answer, go here.

#3 Which writing system to study, the traditional Chinese or the simplified Chinese?

Before discussing which writing system to learn, let’s straighten up some political implications embedded in the Chinese characters. 

There are people who resist simplified Chinese because it is the system used in mainland China which is controlled by the Communist Party whom they are against. They believed that it was Mao Zedong who decided to simply Chinese characters after 1949 for the purpose of brainwashing Chinese people. Unfortunately, nothing is true.

It might be disappointing for many to know that the simplification process of Chinese characters began long before 1949, and the idea was pushed forward by many intellectuals who were not communists. If we understand who, for what reason, started to promote the idea of simplifying Chinese characters, and what criteria were used, we would know that the simplified Chinese does not connect with the brainwashing propaganda, and that simplified characters are not ugly characters with no meanings.

Our hero is Qian Xuantong, who started to publicising the idea of simplifying Chinese characters in 1923. Read about his story here, and read the overall simplification criteria here. 

Get back to our question, which one to learn, traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese? The answer is it doesn’t matter as long as you stick it to the end. These two writing systems are overlapping, knowing one really well naturally leads to the recognition of the other. For the most part, the simplified Chinese is not easier to learn than the traditional Chinese, although it is easier to learn some characters in simplified forms. 

#4 How many characters do I need to study?

Many people are scared at the fact that they must tackle thousands of Chinese characters to be able to read and write. The truth is, we need much less than that to build up solid reading and writing skills in Chinese. For beginner students, that number can be as small as 320 Chinese characters. The reason is very simple. Some characters are used more often than others. 

But I’d like to remind you that, counting individual characters grossly underestimates the potentials of each Chinese character, and will miss the the real critical aspect of learning: how many combinations these characters can form, and the actual reading and writing students can do with these Chinese characters. 

For detailed information and statistic, read here.

#5 Are Chinese characters pictures?

Let’s have a short answer for this question. Chinese characters are visual, but only a very small portion of Chinese characters can be directly connected to pictures or physical objects.

Unfortunately, too many books are teaching Chinese characters as if all Chinese characters are developed from ancient people drawing pictures. Not only do these books over-stretch the connections between Chinese characters and pictures, these books also misguide the learners, hiding the forest (Chinese texts) behind the trees (Chinese characters). Individual Chinese characters take too much space (and energy) and there is not much left for doing any actual reading and writing. Thus, these books made it nearly impossible for students to develop any substantial Chinese reading and writing skills. 

To understand the connection between Chinese characters and pictures, read here.

#6 Do I have to study Chinese radicals (bushou)?

If someone tells you that radicals can explain the meanings of characters, you need to know that this is false. 

The development of the concept of radicals comes from one category of Chinese characters. Some radicals may be able to give a partial clue, but it is definitely not enough to understand the meanings of characters, and certainly not enough to comprehend the extended meanings and usages of characters. To read some basic facts about radicals, go here. 

Also, studying radicals does not offer you a short cut of learning Chinese characters. Before, learning radicals was necessary to consult dictionaries. But nowadays, spending too much time on radicals only wastes your time. To know more about how radicals used to be so important in learning Chinese, read here.

#7 What do you need to achieve the success of learning Chinese?

Many people claim that they would learn Chinese quickly and easily if they are super-smart or have a Chinese girl friend. But nobody will take them seriously. Deep down, we all know that being super-smart or having a Chinese girl friend may or may not be the key ingredient for the success of learning Chinese. The only thing that really matters is being persistent. 

Imagine there are three people learning Chinese, the first one is very smart, the second one has a Chinese girl friend, and the third one is persistent in learning, who do you think will succeed in the end? It must be the third one. Read this story here.

What’s next?

I hope I have answered some of your burning questions. If I haven’t, drop me a line. 

Or, if you have your mind cleared, you want to learn Mandarin and simplified Chinese, and you know that you don’t quit easily, get in touch. I’ll be happy to have you as a student.


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April Zhang
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