Special Report – English, a “de facto working language”

Unofficial language of Macau? Lingua franca? English is everywhere, except in justice.

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


“English, as an international language, has the highest acceptance, so the popularity of English reflects the internationalization of a region. With the rising proportion of English in the official linguistic landscape, it can promote the internationalization of the city image to welcome visitors all over the world,” states a report on linguistic landscape in Macau, where we also can read: “English is a language spoken in the fields of finance, commerce, higher education, and high technology.”  

Andrew Moody, Associate Professor of English at the University of Macau, and Professor Werner Botha, one of the greatest authorities on the use of English in China, both describe English as a “de facto working language”.

“I have argued for a long time that English functions within Macau as a ‘de facto official language’. This means that it is used in many functions of the society, culture and sometimes even the government as any other official language would be used, but without legal status,” explains Professor Moody to Macau Business. 

On the one hand, English is a core curriculum subject from kindergarten to senior secondary school and serves as the medium of instruction for certain school subjects in some schools, being the main medium of instruction in some higher tertiary institutions of Macau. In addition, it is one of the basic requirements in Macau job advertisements, according to a research made by K.C. Lam (unpublished master’s thesis, 2007, University of Macau).


“English functions within Macau as a ‘de facto official language’. This means that it is used in many functions of the society, culture and sometimes even the government as any other official language would be used, but without legal status” – Andrew Moody 

There is some consensus on the growing importance of English in Macau, but few have gone as far as Joanna Lee and Beatrice Lok, who wrote in 2010 A Tale of the Two Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of China: An Overview of English Language Teaching Developments in Hong Kong and Macau. They argue that “the Portuguese language has been replaced by English” and that “the gradual replacement of Portuguese by English as the most popular foreign language is no longer a threat but a reality.”

For Macau, a territory which has never been a British colony, but had contact with English long before Hong Kong existed, “the argument for pragmatism as the cause of the spread and increased use of English must be even more readily accepted,” is the opinion of John Wheeler, Macau Polytechnic Institute. “English does indeed seem to have increased in daily use in Macau for pragmatic, rather than ideological reasons,” adds the Professor Wheeler.

As the language of trade and commerce in Macau, English “does to a limited extent perhaps, function as a lingua franca, and the evidence is that locals want to use it as a lingua franca (*),” concludes Mr. Wheeler. “The language has also become a lingua franca (that is, a language used between individuals who do not share a common first language) in commercial settings, especially in the hotel, restaurant and tourism-support industries,” adds Professor Moody to Macau Business.   

This idea of declaring English as a lingua franca in Macau deserves, however, some scrutiny.

Professor Sao Leng Ieong, one of the most experienced in teaching English in Macau, explains to Macau Business that Macau doesn’t need “the lingua franca” because “English is inclusive and embracive enough, and flexible enough to serve as ‘a lingua franca’.” And Cristina Água-Mel, former Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Macau and University of International Business and Economics (Beijing), understands that English should not be given the status of a lingua franca, since “there is no lingua franca shared by all these communities. Different social groups use different language combinations to communicate with members of other social groups.”

Lingua franca or not, English can very well be characterized as “the unofficial language of Macau”, as two local researchers, Manuel Noronha and Vivian Chaplin, both linked to University of Macau, sentenced a few years ago.

* According to the UNESCO definition, lingua franca is a language commonly used by individuals whose mother tongues are different in order to facilitate communication between them.


Translate the laws?

Bruce Kwong, a public administration lecturer at University of Macau, argues that, under the influence of Hong Kong, a trilingual system has been in place for many years in the territory, which should be made official with regard to the need to translate laws into English.

Kwong claims that “Macau is a trilingual state in spite of the non-official status of English” and that “the issue of trilingual social norms may be one of the most critical issues in bilingual legislations pending to resolve,” Bilingual Legislation in Trilingual Macau Special Administrative Region, China, reads.

Two years after the publication, the idea does not seem to have received support – there was and continues to be only one English translation of the Commercial Code, undertaken upon the initiative of the Government of the MSAR, the first and the only of a major Code. But Bruce Kwong explains to Macau Business that “given that a large number of investors and tourists come from the world, including those from English-speaking communities, I, however, do not see if they would not require legislations with English translation. Using this logic, I would not imagine the government would make a Portuguese or Chinese contract with Sands or Wynn.”

Andrew Moody, a sociolinguist with extensive work on the theme of language in Macau, recognizes that “although translation of the legal code into English might be a desirable goal, it won’t change the way that laws operate within the territory – primarily in Chinese and Portuguese. For example, no one will argue a case based upon the English translation,” Professor Moody states to our magazine.

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