Cantonese:The franca lingua in HK. Though it's said that everyone here can speak English and Mandarin , the language of familiarity is still Cantonese. It's different in Singapore where all of us are forced to speak English due to our diverse ethnicity. Anyway, I've encountered more than fair share of Lost in Translation moments in HK where shopkeepers stuggle to speak to me in English/Mandarin and later assume I'm Korean/Japanese!
Before becoming an expat wife in HK, I could not speak Cantonese. My pathectic grasp of the language did not extend beyound the dim sum menu since I'm a Straits Born Chinese (Chinese with Malay/Dutch heritage) . Well, I've taken some steps to rectify my sorry state and have learnt how to say 'Thank You', 'Where is the toilet?' and other essentials since then. To help other hapless expats like myself, let me just share a couple of useful sites. Btw, it's useless to print a list of useful words over here since Cantonese is a tonal language(there are 6 tones altogether). Better for you to listen it for yourself.You can hear how the words are actually pronounced and will not be in danger of mispronouncing words and getting bashed up.
This is probably the best website so far since there is a dictionary with audio files.
Another cool website with free language podcast lessons. I downloaded quite a number of these in my iPod.
In Hong Kong, Cantonese dialect is most widely spoken and taught in schools. Mandarin is being learnt but Hong Kongers have difficulty with pronounciations as Cantonese language has many more tones than Mandarin. So Hong Kong people, especially new speakers, speak Mandarin with a distinct and "funny" accent.
While many Cantonese and Mandarin used the same characters. Some words in Cantonese have no direct Mandarin translation. Say like UK English and American English.
Whether "Nei hou" (Cantonese), or "Ni hao" (Mandarin) for "How are you?", have fun trying your Cantonese and Mandarin while in Hong Kong.
For us it's rude to should when you are talking but for the chinese in HongKong, it's just their way of communicating. It may give you the impression that they are just disgusted with you the foreigner, but it's just the way they are!
One wouldn't expect it after more than 150 years of British annexation but Hong Kong's overall English skills are not considerably good.
There are three main reasons:
a) The British annexation was not necessarily well perceived among HK's population and lead to an inevitable lack of interest in learning the language.
b) Honk Kong's education system mainly focuses on reading and writing skills rather than listening and speaking. Hence, most people might be able to write and read fluently but are almost unable to converse or understand.
c) After the handover in 1997 streams of mainland Chinese were flooding into HK. Since most people from mainland China have only little or no command of English, the overall skills kept declining.
In most tourist areas, however, the skills are usually good and shouldn't cause any problems.
Bascially everyone can speak some english and little mandarian. Yes, funny huh? I learn english since 5 years old, and learn mandarian in high school.
So my mandarian is worse than my english, yeah and i travel to China, and people make fun at my mandarian, hoorah!
Not everyone speaks english in HK especially if you venture out into non-tourist areas. Learning at least one phrase whether it be good morning, thank you, or in my case Happy New Year will go a long way. Your attempt at the language will be appreciated.
You hear it everywhere in Hong Kong from the moment you enter the airport. In shops, on the subway, in movies or on local TV, among close friends and relatives as well as between strangers; this phrase is by far the most popular among Hong Kong natives:
"Nay yommo GAO choe waaaaaah!"
(Emphasis on GAO, which rhymes with cow; usually followed by 'cheeeeee sing!')
So what does it mean?
It's versatile and can mean both "You just did something wrong (or stupid) and you know it, don't you!" or "You must be kidding!"
(The follow up phrase 'cheeeeee sing!' means "you're crazy!")
Memorize this phrase and impress people you meet in Hong Kong or just try it out on the street if somebody bumps into you.
Hey! "Nay yommo GAO choe waaaaaah!"
You can't help smirking after the follow-up phrase and it also happens to be useful for prompting smiles from people when taking photos.
"Say Cheeeeee sing!" Click.
In Hong Kong, the majority of people speak Chinese, including Cantonese & Mandarin (official language of Mainland China). However, as Hong Kong had been an English Colony for over a century, many people know English & will be willing to help you if you have any questions..
Many foreigners mix up Hong Kong locals with the people from China and think that our mother tongue is Mandarin. This is a BIG misunderstanding.
The locals speak Cantonese, which is a type of Chinese language mainly spoken in Guangzhou but is definitely different from Mandarin.
However, Cantonese is only a spoken language but not a written one.
In short, our native language is Cantonese when speaking and Chinese when writing.
Chinese has seven major language groups. The Cantonese dialects are spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, parts of Hainan, Macau, and in many overseas settlements.
To say hello in Cantonese, say "Neih hou" (said like Nay ho)
To say thank you in Cantonese, say "Gei hou" (said like Gay ho)
Any attempt at the local language is always appreciated by the locals. A simple 'Mmmm Goy' (that is the way its pronounced) is thank you, Jo Sahn (good morning) in Cantonese. Don't be afraid to push your way through like the locals otherwise you may find yourself being left behind in the rush.
Bring along some easy to pronounce basic chinese sayings. In less touristy areas (which I prefer), most people do not speak English but respond with great kindness to any attempt at speaking Chinese (I usually got laughed at, then helped).
In Hongkong they speak a lot of Cantonese Chinese.
To say THANK YOU: 'mmm goi' (someone does something for you)
or.... when you are served tea at a restaurant instead of saying 'mmm goi' you can use two fingers (pointer and middle) and tap them twice on the table by your tea cup. The server will know you said thanks;)
also....to say THANK YOU: 'doh jeh' (some one gives you something like a gift)
I found loads of different newspapers, magazines and publications in Chinese at the roadside vendors...but nary a one in English!! Only the bigger magazine shops carry English publications.
Shop signs and menus are mostly in Chinese. Some smaller restaurants don't even have a menu in English. So for those illiterate in Chinese, you can either get a kind soul to translate, or find yourself eating pig liver or chicken feet.
Local telephone calls are FREE. Malaysians, don't you just cry when you hear news like this???
Well, if you must know, not many people in Hongkong speak fluent English. So, you might as well learn to speak some BASIC CANTONESE. :-) Bu... But... how do you learn this Chinese dialect quickly if you're leaving for Hongkong tomorrow?
Fear not, my dear Hongkong-bound friend! The easiest way (I've since discovered) to learning a particular language is to equate it with certain items, objects and friends/ people you've come across in your life. Here goes:
- Good morning = Joe Sun (Just remember: JOECOOPER + SUN and you should be fine).
- Hello = nei ho
- What is your name? = lei kiu me yeh mang?
- Nice to meet you = Ngo go heng ying sik lei.
- Goodbye = joy kin
- Good afternoon = ng on
- Good evening = marn on
- Good night = Joe taau
- Yes = hai
- No = mm hai
- Good, Good, Good = Ho Ho Ho (Not Santa Claus saying HOHOHO. In Cantonese - it really means GOOD, GOOD, GOOD!)
- So so = mama foo foo
- Bad/ No good = mm ho
- Thank you = door jeh OR mm goi
- Thank you very much = mm goi sai OR do jeh sai
- You're welcome = mm sai hark hei
- Excuse me = tui mm chooi
- How are you? = nei ho ma?
- I don't understand = ngoh mm ming park.
- How do you say this in English? = yung Kwong Tung wa dim yeung gong?
- English = ying man
- French = fart man
- German = tak man
- Spanish = sai parn nga man
- Chinese = chung man
- Friend = pang yau
Now.. go and practice your Cantonese before you board your flight to Hongkong tomorrow! Good luck.