The importance of Cantonese for teaching English

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Think what this article is telling us.  If you want to find a job teaching English in Hong Kong, you would do well to first learn some Cantonese — even if you are Pakistani.

"Hong Kong’s ethnic minority jobseekers tripped up by lack of Cantonese end up doing low-skilled work, survey shows", by Fiona Chow, SCMP (2/3/24)

    • Most surveyed say it’s hard to break out of jobs as deliverymen, security guards and construction workers
    • Hongkonger of Pakistani origin says learning Cantonese helped her land a job as a teaching assistant

After 10 years as a stay-at-home mum caring for three children in Hong Kong, Nazia Mehmood wanted to return to the workforce and teach English.

Born and raised in the city, the 40-something of Pakistani origin knew that her lack of proficiency in Cantonese would get in her way. Taking a course that helped her brush up on the language spoken by more than nine in 10 people in the city proved a big help in landing a job.

Jobseekers from Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities stumble over the language barrier when looking for work. As a result, many end up doing low-skilled, manual work, according to official data and a recent study.

Most in this group were South and Southeast Asians, including Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers. Slightly over a fifth were Caucasians, people of mixed race, Japanese and Koreans.

So long as they pick up a minimal functional level of Cantonese, their ethnic background is actually a benefit to them and their employer, since it helps to build bridges among different groups.  Without learning Cantonese, their failure to get good jobs is not a matter of discrimination, but the natural consequence of their inability to communicate freely with different segments of the society.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. AntC said,

    February 8, 2024 @ 9:24 pm

    SCMP is behind a pay wall, so I can't see more than Prof Mair quotes. The 'evidence seems to be one woman. Prima facie i am deeply sceptical of the claim racial discrimination in HK has much to do with speaking Cantonese. (And everything recently to do with Cantonese suggests they'd be best advised to speak Putongua. For example Cantonese is no longer the .medium in the school system.)

  2. AntC said,

    February 8, 2024 @ 9:29 pm

    Cantonese is not dead yet

    Victor really! You should know better. Those articles are seven years ago.

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 8, 2024 @ 10:36 pm

    Cantonese is still the primary language of instruction in Hong Kong primary/secondary schools surely? But not for too much longer I guess. Maybe AntC is right to say forget it and go with Mandarin at this point.

    Re ethnic minority communities, it's Hong Kong (cf. America, etc.) — of course everything has to do with discrimination aka racism.

  4. AntC said,

    February 8, 2024 @ 11:00 pm

    Secretary of Hong Kong's Education said switching to Putonghua is not mandatory but desirable if teachers meet requirements and schools offer an environment. 2022.

    And we've all seen in the years since what "not mandatory but desirable" amounts to.

  5. Chaak-ming Lau said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 1:54 am

    Cantonese is still the language one needs for classroom and workplace communication.

    As far as we can tell, Cantonese is still the medium of instruction for most subjects in the majority (>90%) of Hong Kong primary schools as of 2024. Local secondary schools are primarily taught in Cantonese (CMI schools) or English supplemented by Cantonese (EMI schools). There are schools that teach Chinese in Putonghua, which is (fortunately) not implemented everywhere.

    There are schools with a majority of students coming from Mandarin-speaking families, and you will hear Mandarin during recesses. But even in these schools, classes are taught in Cantonese.

    I need to add that all school meetings and events are conducted in Cantonese. Sometimes people may switch to English to accommodate non-Cantonese speakers, but you can't do that all the time. A school teacher can do fine without knowing a word of Putonghua, and will struggle a lot without a decent level of Cantonese.

    We should never advise ethnic minority students to "go with Mandarin". Cantonese proficiency will continue to be a key asset for all ethnic groups in Hong Kong in the foreseeable future.

  6. Meitik said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 6:55 am

    Even those high rank foreign diplomatic figures have to gain popularity by communicating like a local Cantonese speaker in HK:

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 7:54 am

    We should never advise ethnic minority students to "go with Mandarin".

    Bless you, Chaak-ming Lau, for saying so.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 9:25 am

    re "go with Mandarin" — yes this is gloomy social commentary at this moment as opposed to literal advice for ethnic minorities or diplomats or anyone. But a lesson from other places is that the answer to when the local language will be practically gone and your kids speaking only Mandarin is *always* "before you know it."

  9. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 1:15 pm

    Shouldn't it be Guangdongese?

  10. Meitik said,

    February 9, 2024 @ 9:33 pm

    Top diplomats from the United States and Japan try their best to win the hearts of the HK public with Cantonese greetings for the CNY:

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