Special Report – Cantonese in peril?

The influx of mainland tourists brought Pǔtōnghuà and simplified characters. Cantonese is still widely spoken, but observers anticipate that it’s set to lose ground as 2049 edges closer.

MB February 2021 Special Report | One city, four ‘languages’


When in 1993 the Macau Basic Law was promulgated, it defined only ‘Chinese’ as one of the official languages, following in the footsteps of Hong Kong, very few concerned.

After all, for the overwhelming majority of the population, the Chinese language was the one that nearly everyone spoke: the Cantonese dialect and its traditional characters.

Tourists arriving in Macau, coming from Hong Kong or Taiwan, spoke and/or wrote in the same way, and so it took at least a decade before part of the population discovered that Chinese in simplified characters and spoken Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà) was increasingly present.

It is now clear, as it was before 1999, that Beijing did not want to impose its national language (Guóyǔ or 國語/国语), respecting the ‘second system’ in this linguistic and cultural case of Hong Kong and Macau. “Chinese is ill-defined” argues Anita Poon, an expert in language policy at Hong Kong Baptist University.

But it was not due to the lack of definition of the Law or the intervention of the Governments of the two special Administrative regions (SARs) that Cantonese began to lose strength.

The turning point was the creation of the Individual Visit Scheme, in July 2003 allowing travellers from Mainland China to visit Hong Kong and Macau on an individual basis, a move that came to the rescue of the SARs economies, which were back then heavily hit by the SARS crisis. Hitherto Mainland residents could only visit the two cities on business visas or on tour groups.

Even more so than in Hong Kong, this system allowed more and more millions of tourists from Mainland to enter Macau, including tourists who travelled from Guangdong’s ‘sister’ province, but also from other provinces where Pǔtōnghuà is the common language, using simplified characters.

From small local merchants to the largest casinos, many positioned themselves to receive tourists with difficulties in understanding the local dialect and traditional Chinese characters.

Signs were added, the menus started to include simplified Chinese, and Pǔtōnghuà speakers were hired. “The dominated group like the Macau locals recognizes the legitimacy of the dominant language (traditional Chinese) was unsecured, because the simplified Chinese were adopted in the casinos and hotel resorts or even the signboards in their everyday life. Hence, they have a sense of language insecurity largely due to their lack of literacy in simplified Chinese,” concluded a team of researchers led by Lou Lai Chu from the University of Saint Joseph.

“There is an evident acculturation of the Cantonese in Macau, both linguistically and socially, that takes place, not through English as in Singapore and Hong Kong, but more through Pǔtōnghuà,” states Jean Berlie, a well-seasoned Sinologist, with several books published on Macau.

Pǔtōnghuà moved from the store windows to classrooms and, since the beginning of the last decade, more voices began to be heard defending not only the teaching of simplified characters but the primacy of Mandarin as official language.

Guo Xiaoming, school inspector of the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau (DSEJ), went on to explain in a publication linked to the Macau SAR Government that “in view of the plurality of the tradition recorded in the past, the critical point was to ’unite’ all ‘systems’ and build a new system, creating a new Macau tradition compatible with the needs arising from development in the new era.”

Mr Guo, who believes that the use of Cantonese in school should “be essentially limited to orality,” also defended that “there must be courage to build in Macau a tradition of teaching Chinese language compatible with local needs,” being that “the fundamental objective is to raise the level of Chinese language knowledge of students in Macau globally, contributing to a healthy transmission of the Chinese language.”

Song Xinqiao, consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Putonghua Education, goes further in his views.

In a 2013 article, but only to be known five years later, the expert argues that the Cantonese is a dialect and not a mother tongue. “Cantonese belongs to Chinese, but we usually would not use Cantonese – a Chinese dialect – to represent the language of the Han ethnic group. To make it accurate, a dialect in a language cannot be seen as a ‘mother tongue’,” he wrote.

As 2049 approaches, the presence of Pǔtōnghuà will be stronger, probably at the expense of Cantonese, mainly because, as some experts argue, “the adoption of Pǔtōnghuà by the PRC constituted a linguistic policy strategy to deal with the enormous plurilingualism in Chinese, which could create obstacles to the goal of achieving a national linguistic unity.”

“This is a political problem. The authorities created Mandarin [Pǔtōnghuà] to promote the unity of the country, since the Cantonese is not understood by everyone,” explains Professor Zheng Dehua, Director of Research Centre for Chinese Culture at the University of Macau. Mr Zheng is an expert in History and Culture of Macau and Hong Kong and uses Pǔtōnghuà in his classes and Cantonese in his daily life and defends the simultaneous use of both languages.

“In recent years [in Macau], children are less and less able to speak Cantonese. What has the Government done to prevent this?” lawmaker Sulu Sou asked recently on his Facebook page.

“Cantonese belongs to Chinese, but we usually would not use Cantonese – a Chinese dialect – to represent the language of the Han ethnic group. To make it accurate, a dialect in a language cannot be seen as a ‘mother tongue’” – Song Xinqiao


Language attitudes

(most-preferred community language, according several researches)

 Mann and Wong (1999) Young (2006) Yan (2017)
Cantonese 1
English 2
Putonghua 3
Portuguese 4