Pursuing Dreams in an Asian Global City: Does Host Language Proficiency Matter for Asian Minorities?

Blog post by Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui

27 May 2022, 10:21 a.m.
Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui



What language matters for international migrants in pursuing their dreams in a host society? Studies on international migration focus on English-speaking countries, where the dominant language at work and in social life is the mother tongue of the natives. Asians who want to pursue dreams but are not attracted by western culture may pursue their dreams in an Asian global city. While most people in Asia do not use English to communicate in their daily life, less is known whether and how the languages of the host society serve as an obstacle to immigrants’ assimilation. Migrant workers are interested to know whether and how their proficiency in the native language and dominant non-native language in the business sector determines their economic success. This research question does not draw much attention, because linguistic heterogeneity usually exists in developing countries, which are not popular destinations for migrants.

Hong Kong, positioned as an Asian global city, is an excellent case to answer the question that whether mastery of the native language (Cantonese) and/or English, a dominant non-native language in the commercial sector, determines the economic success of Asian migrants. On the other hand, there is a general belief that China will become the largest economy in the world around 2030. Hong Kong’s unique link with Mainland China makes this global city very attractive for potential migrants to pursue Asian dreams. In Hong Kong, English is widely used in business communication whereas Cantonese is used in daily life. English and Cantonese are usually not the native languages of the Asian immigrants, particularly those from less developed or developing non-English speaking Asian countries, such as Thailand, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Based on the random sample of the latest available population, our findings are contrary to the general expectation of the importance of the native language. We find that a mastery of English and the official language of China (Putonghua, also known as Mandarin) instead of the native language (Cantonese) generates higher earnings returns for Asian minorities. The language advantages on earnings are mediated by the attainment of high-paid occupations.

We suggest that the role of language in immigrants’ economic assimilation should be understood in the context of Hong Kong as a global city with a colonial past. Relating to its British colonial history, English has long been the official language in Hong Kong and is also strongly related to the global economic power structure. Hong Kong positioned itself as a premier regional business hub with many multinational corporations’ regional headquarters or corporate treasury centres. Moreover, its connection with Mainland China has been strengthened after the city’s handover and Putonghua has become more important in business communications.

To conclude, the immigrants’ assimilation into a host society is not just a local problem but relates to the global and regional contextual factors of the city. We call for more studies in Asian and other global cities to enhance the understanding of the assimilation of immigrants in a non-western context.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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