Should I learn Cantonese or Mandarin if I live in Hong Kong?
A question may expats ask when coming to Hong Kong is which is the best language to learn. Here, we try to give you some guidance to help you make the right decision.
Cantonese is the native dialect in Hong Kong and almost universally used by local Hong Kong residents in every day conversation. It is for this reason that many people will recommend you learn Cantonese if Hong Kong is likely to be your long term home. However, it is a very difficult language to learn, as there are 9 different tones used (compared to 4 tones in Mandarin) Note that learning a tonal language is hard, no matter how many different tones there are! Mandarin is not used much in Hong Kong, except in some business communication.
Even though Cantonese is in decline as an international currency, it can make your life in Hong Kong far easier and much more enjoyable, as you will be able to interact with locals more successfully. English is one of the official languages of Hong Kong but it is sometimes not of a very good standard. For example, if you take a taxi to anywhere that's away from the downtown areas or tourist spots, you may struggle to communicate with the driver.
Furthermore, as a resident of Hong Kong, you are much more likely to be exposed to Cantonese in every day use, so there will be far more opportunities for you to practice your language skills and gain real life experience. This is a significant advantage to the learning process, actual opportunity to listen and use the language in day to day life.
With more and more trade and communication between Hong Kong and mainland China, Mandarin is becoming an increasingly popular language to learn but in our opinion, only if you are likely to be dealing with mainland Chinese and indeed there is some weight to the argument that employers who have dealings with the mainland may often prefer a Mandarin speaking candidate. Don't forget though, that Cantonese is spoken in large parts of Southern China, not only Hong Kong.
Also, over time, the value of Mandarin as a language is likely to grow, as China itself grown on the World stage. Certainly, if you plan to travel or work in China in the future, Mandarin makes sense.
If you plan to be in Hong Kong long term, Cantonese is the logical choice in our opinion. It makes sense to learn the language that the vast majority of the local use, doesn't it?
Whatever language you learn, it can only be good for you. You will enjoy your time in Hong Kong far more if you are able to converse with people in their own language, as well as making yourself more attractive to employers.
Solution - Learn Both!
This seems like a good idea if you have the time and resources to throw at learning both languages but it will be hard for most people. To maximise your chances of success after you've made it past the basics, you will need to be using both languages daily if you're to progress to conversational Cantonese and Mandarin together. It will require complete dedication. Of course, there will be people that have a natural ability with tonal languages. Such people are more likely to become absorbed in the comparisons between the tones of the two languages and are more likely to remember them with ease. You will have to decide if you can focus on both.