Special Report – One city, four ‘languages’

Ou Mun, Macao, Ao Men and Macau *

“Edificio Pik Tou Garden” is a (very pleasant, says who knows) apartment building in Macau. 

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

But beyond that, the name of the building is a remarkable metaphor for the local language environment: Edificio is the Portuguese word for building, Pik Tou means jade wave in Cantonese, Garden,… you know. 

“Three different ‘languages’ in four words is quite striking and one of the things which makes Macau unique,” states a leading expert on local language ecology, John Wheeler.

Local Cantonese-speaking people describe that as the saam man sei jyu (三文四語), referring to written Chinese, Portuguese and English and spoken Cantonese, Putonghua, Portuguese and English. 

The government itself has adopted a policy of promoting “three written languages, four spoken languages” (três línguas, quarto idiomas, in Portuguese).

Over the next 20 pages, we will explore the role of each of one of the four, and take note of the views of locals who master all four languages (quadrilinguals), an ability that will be increasingly common in the next 20 years in Macau, and one that brings a key competitive advantage, as Macau’s is to be further integrated in the Greater Bay Area, by playing the role of a hub for linkages between China and the Lusophone world.

As put by John Wheeler, “It seems likely that the four main languages present in Macau will continue to blend for the immediate future, assisting in giving Macau (SAR) its unique linguistic flavour.”

* The order of the four words has to do with the interest that each of the four languages arouses in the population of Macau, according to some studies. But for us and for many others, Macau is the (romanization for the) name of this land.

Co-ordinated by João Paulo Meneses

[email protected]

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.

The May 2012 controversy

A McDonald’s signboard written in simplified characters started an unprecedented discussion in Macau.

澳门 or 澳門?

A few months from now, when the results of the 2021 Census are publicly known, there will be certainty, but just now, the reader can bet on an increase in the number of Pǔtōnghuà speakers in Macau.

EOZGY, the Pǔtōnghuà’ school

The first public school to offer all levels of education in Macau and the only one in Macau adopting  Pǔtōnghuà as medium of instruction

The status of Portuguese as an official language  

Portuguese has witnessed a renewed interest in recent years thanks to China’s focus on highlighting Macau as a Sino-Lusophone hub. However the meaning and practice of being an official language end up being rather nuanced.

Judiciary: what remains of bilingualism

A doctoral thesis carried out in Macau in 2016, among the Portuguese community based here, showed what has always been known: “there is no interest from the Portuguese community in learning [Chinese] in a general way,” says Vanessa Amaro, the author.

English, a “de facto working language”

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

Macau or Macao?

For some it may be a detail, for others a merely symbolic issue and for others much more than all of that – a matter of identity

Being quadrilingual

They are cases in point in the city’s push for multulingual talents. Four local residents, proficient speakers of four key languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, Portuguese and English