The answer is…not really. In terms of academics, you really don’t have to, as almost all courses offered at universities in Hong Kong are conducted in English. The university administrations also use English to communicate with you. If you come to study in Hong Kong knowing only English, you will be just fine. Yet picking up the basics of the local language may make your life easier in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, the main spoken language is Cantonese. Mandarin Chinese is understood by most people but Hong Kong locals mainly prefer to converse in Cantonese. In Hong Kong, Cantonese itself is called Chinese and Mandarin Chinese is called Putonghua. You can get around with English, practically, as all the street signs and instructions are written in English. Wherever you go, you can always find someone who can help you to find your way if you got lost in Hong Kong.
Socialising with local people
Socialising is unarguably a big part of university life. English allows you to communicate with any friends inside and outside university. However, when you communicate with local people, especially if you are the only non-local in the group, you may face some problems. I have so many nice Hong Kong friends who are kind enough to include me in their conversation and translate the summary of the conversation for me in English. But you won’t find that conversation interactive enough and you will not learn or understand much from that conversation if you only understand ten sentences of conversation through a two-sentence summary. Learning some Cantonese once you arrive in Hong Kong will come in handy. You can learn by taking a course in your universities or asking your friends to teach you some basics.
From experience, learning Cantonese will help you a lot when you take public transportation. Big buses and MTR (public transit trains) have clear routes and well-managed systems, so you will be less likely to have trouble if you have no knowledge of Cantonese. However, once you take some small buses and taxis you really need to know where you are going, as some taxi drivers do not even know the English names of some buildings or places. At the very least, knowing the Chinese translation of your destination will help you get there.
The culinary experience
Eating is a big part of living in Hong Kong and for me, it’s the best part. Hong Kong is definitely a culinary paradise. There are a few good eating places hidden from the public view and these places are mainly operated by older generations of Hong Kong people. Their English knowledge is limited, so if you can’t read the menu or mention the Chinese name of the food, you will have some trouble. In my first year, I managed to solve my problem in this case by going around the restaurant, pointing to the pictures of the food and indicating the quantity using my fingers.
Given all the perks that learning Cantonese will give you in Hong Kong, it really will be a rewarding experience. Once you have settled in to start your university life, I suggest you find someone who is more than happy to teach you Cantonese or wants do some language exchange with you. If informal language classes are not your thing, go check out Cantonese classes in your universities! See you in Hong Kong!
PS: Some of you may be wondering: how about Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua)? It will help your study life in Hong Kong up to some extent, but it will be much more important if you are planning to work in Hong Kong. I may write more about this in my next article.
Melisa Junata is an MPhil candidate in biomedical engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and she is originally from Indonesia.