Cantonese (Hong Kong)

  • Hong Kong is one of the two special administrative regions (SARs) of the People's Republic of China, along with Macau
  • Hong Kong was a Crown colony of the United Kingdom from 1842 until the transfer of sovereignty to the People's Republic of China in 1997. Under the policy of “one country, two systems”, the People's Republic of China is responsible for the territory's defense and foreign diplomacy, while Hong Kong maintains its own legal system, monetary system, customs policy, cultural delegation, international sports teams and immigration policy

Chinese Immigration
Information specific to Chinese immigrants who originated from Hong Kong and now live in Oregon has been somewhat challenging to find…more information in this area is welcomed.


  • Hong Kong culture is often referred to as a marriage between East and West, a tight cultural and bilingual arrangement evident throughout the territory
  • Hong Kong is frequently described as a city where East meets West, a meeting reflected in its economic infrastructure, education, legal system and street culture
  • About 96% of Hong Kong's population is of Chinese descent
  • Hong Kong's population increased sharply throughout the 1990's, reaching 6.99 million in mid-2006
  • Much of Hong Kong's government, police, educational settings and most workplaces operate bilingually in Cantonese and English
  • Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of religious freedom, a right enshrined and protected through its constitutional document, the Basic Law. The majority of Hong Kong's population, as in Mainland China, practice a folk version of Buddhism. There are also around 200,000 followers each of authentic Buddhism and Taoism. A sizable Christian community of around 500,000 also exists, forming about 10% of the total population.


  • Cantonese, a Chinese dialect commonly spoken in southern China, is Hong Kong's official dialect and spoken by an overwhelming majority of the local population.
  • English is also an official language of Hong Kong and is a main language of culture, commerce, technology and education.
  • Although English remains an official language, only a handful of primary schools and secondary schools are allowed to use English as the medium of instruction under new government policy. However, English is widely used in universities, businesses and courts.
  • Code switching and loan words between Cantonese and English very common as a result.


  •  Cantonese is a major dialect group or language of the Chinese language, and different dialects of Cantonese exist.
  • It is spoken by 71 million people, mainly in Guangdong and some parts of southern Mainland China, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau.
  • Cantonese is often considered a dialect of a single Chinese language for cultural or nationalistic reasons.
  • There are 6 different tones in Cantonese; tones can be rising, falling or level.
  • According to some researchers, Cantonese speakers tend to say only 7 of the 11 vowel sounds in English clearly.

Hong Kong English

  • Refers to an acquired form of English modeled on British English, with American influences, but proficiency also depends on the individual language environments
  • Hong Kong English “continued to play a central role in post-handover Hong Kong (after 1997) in a society that aspires to retain its international status and to be bi-literate and trilingual” (Hung, 2000)

Some Standout Characteristics


  • Like British English, Hong Kong English is non-rhotic, which means 'r' is not pronounced except before a vowel
  • 'wh' read as 'w', as in British English
  • Beginning 'r' as 'w' sound
  • 'r' in other positions may be read as 'w' or 'l' . (eg. 'error' as E-WA)
  • 'r' and 'l' in positions other than the beginning are also often confused


  • Beginning 'v' read as 'w' sound
  • Other 'v' becomes 'w' or 'f' mostly with a consensus yet no obvious pattern (eg. 'f' in 'favor', second 'v' in 'Volvo' and either 'f' or 'w' in 'develop' depending on the speaker)


  • 'th' read as 'd' or 'f' ('th' sound is not used in Cantonese)


  • 'n' and 'l' is interchangeable


  • Beginning 'j' and soft 'g' read as 'dz' (e.g., Gigi pronounced as “zhi-zhi”)


  • Merging of /æ/ to /E/ (“bad” to “bed”)


  • Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed (e.g. “E-du-ca-tion” may be pronounced as ”'Ed 'cation” since Chinese is tonal and largely monosyllabic
  • Omission of entire syllables in longer words. ('Difference' become DIFF-ENS, 'temperature' becomes TEM-PI-CHUR)
  • Words beginning with unstressed syllables 'con' are generally pronounced as its stressed form /kawn/ with a lower pitch, e.g. 'connection', 'consent', 'condition'. Words beginning with stressed syllable 'com-' e.g. 'competition', 'common' and 'compromise' are pronounced as /kahm/


  • Omitting articles like “the” and “a”
  • Confusion with verb tenses and agreement of singular or plural nouns, as they have no direct equivalents in Cantonese grammar
  • Use of prepositions: “on”, “in” and “at” are often interchangeable
  • Yes/No confusion: In Cantonese, “yes” represents an agreement, “no” represents a disagreement, whilst in English “yes” represents a positive answer, “no” represents a negative answer. For example: “She isn't pretty, is she?” might attract the answer “No” when the native Cantonese speaker means “I disagree, in my opinion she is pretty”
  • “There is/are” becomes “there has/have”, a direct translation
  • Often use commas where periods should be used as sentences could be linked up with commas in Chinese


  • Referring to either sex as “she or he” and “her or him”
  • Plural forms: no plural forms in Chinese, so plurality and singularity are often confused


  • 10,000: Numbers larger than ten thousand. In Chinese, 10 thousand is read as one myriad, 100 thousand as 10 myriad, one million as 100 myriad
  • Fractions: “three over four” may wrongly be taken as “four over three”, since in Chinese, denominator is read before numerator


The following constitutes a sample of some pragmatic features that may be seen in Chinese culture:

Receiving Compliments: Typical Chinese responses to compliments on one’s excellence in certain skills, one’s remarkable accomplishment, or the like are “There is nothing worthy of note”, “You are over-praising me”, “You may be joking”, or “It is really difficult for me to do it well”, “I have been really working hard on it”, etc. These responses are typical Chinese sayings when receiving compliments, and students are therefore told, stereotypically, that they are associated with impoliteness in respect to the hearer. While the first three may carry strong implications of questioning the judgment or evaluation of the one who compliments, the last two may indicate a strong sense of immodesty of the one who responds to the compliment.

Receiving Thanks: In many cases, the Chinese, out of his own cultural norms, may respond to thanks for provided favors with ‘This is what I should do’, ‘Don’t mention it’ and “It’s really nothing” (which are literal translations of Chinese utterances in receiving thanks), although he is taught to respond with ‘With pleasure’ or ‘I’m glad to be of help’, etc.

Accepting Offers: During visits, when a native English speaker as host shows hospitality and offers a Chinese visitor a cup of coffee or a tin of sprite, the visitor often replies ‘Please do not take the trouble’ or ‘No, thanks’ when he actually means to accept the kind offer. These are typical Chinese responses to offers: The guest pretends to save the host trouble making such offers, and the host will appear even more hospitable if he insists. While politely rejecting, the guest understands well that the host will show further politeness and continue the offer. In fact, he is still expecting the coffee or sprite to be brought unless he repeats his utterance or explains why he does not want to have any. As a norm, he will make further polite protestations when coffee or sprite is brought and then take it after being repeatedly urged. However, among close friends, a simple ‘Thank you’ in Chinese would mean a happy acceptance.

Giving Advice or Showing Concern: A Chinese may say to a native English speaker ‘You should really go and visit the beautiful city of Harbin’, or ‘Be careful!’ or ‘Look out!’ (when climbing a mountain). In this particular context of exchange involving cross-cultural speakers, possible problematic implications on the side of the Chinese speakers of English are comprehensibly and empathetically ruled out by the native English speakers, especially those of nosiness (in asking questions for phatic purposes) and pushiness (in giving earnest advice).


  • Most schools in Hong Kong fall under one of three categories: Public schools, subsidized schools and private schools.
  • Public schools system features a non-compulsory three-year kindergarten, followed by a compulsory six-year primary education, three-year junior secondary education; a non-compulsory two-year senior secondary education leading to the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examinations and a two-year matriculation course leading to the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examinations. A new “3+3+4” senior secondary curriculum, consisting of a three-year junior secondary, three-year senior secondary and four-year undergraduate academic system, will be implemented from 2009 onwards.
  • Subsidized schools are by far the most common type, which included government aids and grant schools, run by charitable organizations often with religious affiliations.
  • Private schools, often run by Christian organizations, have admissions based on academic merit rather than on financial resources.
  • Education in China, in its various forms and levels, is widely conceptualized as integrating the cultivation of ‘human souls’ with the provision of students with knowledge. The English word ‘education’ is jiao yu in Chinese, which means ‘teaching [and] cultivating’. The analogy shi nian shu mu, bai nian shu ren, (“it takes ten years to grow trees, but a hundred years to cultivate a person”) may illustrate the cultivating responsibilities laid on Chinese schools or other institutions engaged in educating people. A Chinese metaphor equating teachers with ren lei ling hun gong cheng shi (“the engineers of human souls”) also reveals the cultural knowledge that teachers play a crucial role in cultivating the soul of Chinese people.
  • The cultural knowledge embodied in the Chinese cultural schema of Education exerts profound influence on teachers, students (regardless of their ages) and their parents
  • The essence of Chinese teaching hinges on the notion that moral cultivation is the paramount means to shape students to become appropriate members of the established society. The Chinese Education schema functions like a blueprint, governing nationwide educational activities and organizing individual teacher’s teaching agendas. It is likely that in most Chinese schools, the goal of ‘cultivating’ takes precedence over the goal of imparting knowledge.
  • Chinese students are not supposed to interact freely with teachers on the basis of equal status. This explains the genesis of the renowned Chinese teacher-centered approach and accounts for Chinese students frequently being seen as followers and not asking many questions in class.
  • In the context of believing in determination, diligence and perseverance, most Chinese students tend to be self-critical if failure occurs in their learning. They are not ready to attribute their learning failure to teachers, but see failure as their own responsibility. Moreover, any open discussion with a teacher for a solution may suggest that the teacher has failed to teach effectively and the student would want to ‘save’ the teacher’s ‘face’.

Implications for Speech and Language Professionals

  • The previous topic areas regarding Cantonese and Hong Kong English provide a synopsis of linguistic properties and processes, as well as “standout” social and cultural trends seen in Hong Kong
  • Clinicians should bear in mind that when conducting Independent and Relational speech analysis, students from Hong Kong could potentially present with speech sound properties that may be indicative of Cantonese, the influences of British English, or both
  • Clinicians should also refer to the previous section on Education, which provides some examples of dynamics and attitudes that may be seen in Chinese educational culture, and that could explain for some differences in educational perspectives for students originating from Chinese culture

 Original Contributor: David Newton-Tapia, Winter term 2007


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