Multilingual Macau

The front cover of the tourist map of multilingual Macau

The front cover of the tourist map of multilingual Macau

Last week I had the privilege of visiting the University of Macau and in Macau I discovered yet another unique variation on the many multilingual landscapes we have featured here on Language on the Move.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony, has been a Special Administrative Region of China since 1999. The official languages of Macau are Chinese and Portuguese. English plays an unofficial but highly prominent role: it is the medium of instruction at the University of Macau and at a number of secondary schools. Other schools use Cantonese as medium of instruction and there is one Portuguese-medium school.

Trilingualism in Chinese, Portuguese and English is just the beginning, though. The linguistic situation is further complicated by the diversity of Chinese and the importance of the tourism industry.

The version of Chinese that is local to Macau is Cantonese but Putonghua is gaining in importance. Macau has about half a million residents but welcomes a staggering number of tourists: close to 30 million tourists visit Macau each year. Most of these come from Mainland China and so it is not surprising that in tourism spaces I overheard much more Putonghua than Cantonese. Written Chinese, too, comes in at least three varieties: traditional characters, simplified characters and pinyin. Furthermore, pinyin looks different depending on whether the writer followed English-based or Portuguese-based conventions.

The languages of other tourist markets also feature with maps and signs in Japanese, Korean and Thai.

The linguistic landscape of Macau is thus extremely diverse and each tourist site has its own conventions, as the following examples demonstrate.

A-Ma Temple

Chinese inscriptions at the A-Ma Temple

Chinese inscriptions at the A-Ma Temple

The famous Taoist temple dedicated to the goddess of seafarers, Matsu, from which the name “Macau” is thought to derive, is enlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the day we visited it was crowded with Chinese tour groups. The languages on display were ancient Chinese inscriptions in stones and on the temple façades. The prayer tablets where the devout can record their wishes and prayers also seemed to be Chinese only (although there were hundreds of them so I cannot be sure that prayers in other languages were not also hidden away somewhere).

The direction and prohibition signs were either in Chinese only or in Chinese and English (of the non-standardized “Chinglish” variety). One stall selling incense sticks and other devotionalia featured Chinese and Thai signs. Portuguese and what might be called “standard English” were notable for their absence.

Our Lady of Penha Church

Latin and Chinese on a devotional card at La Penha Church

Latin and Chinese on a devotional card at La Penha Church

One of Macau’s many Catholic churches (Macau used to be the staging post for the Christianisation of East Asia and has the largest number of Catholic churches by square mile in Asia), Penha Church sits on a hill and affords an excellent view over the harbour and across the bay to the mainland. The church itself is not a tourist destination but the spiritual centre of a community of Trappist nuns from Indonesia.

When we visited, the church was empty. Outside, there were a few newly-wed couples in Western wedding garb who were out to have their pictures taken. As far as I could hear, they received their instructions from the photographers on how to pose in Cantonese.

The languages on the signage could not have been more different from the A-Ma Temple: inscriptions on the façade were also monolingual but monolingual in Portuguese rather than Chinese. Signs about the code of conduct came in three language combinations: Chinese-Only, Chinese-English and English-Chinese.

Signage relating to the spiritual life of the church was either predominantly in Chinese or English, with one or the other language predominating and a few expressions in the other interspersed. To my great surprise, I also discovered some Latin slogans on devotional cards. A collection box, which looked quite old and featured Portuguese, Chinese and English suggests that the English presence in Macau predates the tourism boom and globalized signage of the past decade.

Mandarin House

Trilingual poster at the Mandarin House about 盛 世 危 言 (Warning to a Prosperous Age)

Trilingual poster at the Mandarin House about 盛 世 危 言 (Warning to a Prosperous Age)

The so-called “Mandarin House” is another UNESCO World Heritage listed building. It used to be the residence of the Qing dynasty reformer Zheng Guanying. When we visited, the building was deserted and other than the attendants we were the only people present making it a very serene space. Information and prohibition signs were relatively standardized and trilingual in Chinese, Portuguese and English although some prohibition signs were more haphazard and contained only Chinese and English.

What was most interesting was the posters about Zheng Guanying’s book Words of Warning to a Prosperous Age (Shengshi weiyan 盛 世 危 言). What little information about the book I could gather from the information panels suggests that it is a highly relevant text for Intercultural Communication Studies. One website sums up the argument as follows:

As a famous reformer of late Qing China, Zheng Guanying was the earliest advocate of representative and participatory political system in the 1870s, the earliest to call for “commercial warfare ” against Western economic imperialism, and one of the earliest to seriously study international law and its relevance to China’s national identity and foreign relations. He was also one of the earliest Chinese to emphasize the combination of Western medicine and Chinese medicine.

His ideas continue to be highly influential in contemporary China and a translation of Shengshi weiyan would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover an English translation. I hope this is not another case of “no translation;” if it is, a translation would be highly desirable not only for Chinese Studies but also for Intercultural Communication Studies.


Official trilingual "no smoking" sign

Official trilingual “no smoking” sign

A discussion of the touristic linguistic landscape of Macau would not be complete without reference to the casinos because that is where most of the 30 million annual visitors are headed. I got to visit two of them: the Venetian, which is operated by the Las Vegas-based Sands corporation and is an imitation of the Las Vegas Venetian, and City of Dreams, a joint venture between the Macau casino dynasty Ho and the Australian billionaire James Packer. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, the gambling areas occupy only a relatively small part of the casinos and while that is obviously where the action is, I did not enter.

Casino resorts are intended to be spectacular and novel. The Venetian, for instance, looks like a cross between a baroque church and Venetian canals and plazas and City of Dreams features a huge fish tank with (digital) mermaids. However, when it comes to signage there is no trace of the spectacular and unique. In both casinos, commercial signage was completely standardized in the non-language of other global consumer spaces. Direction signs were also standardized in Chinese and English.

Portuguese, by contrast, only had a tiny presence on state-mandated signs, particularly the ubiquitous no-smoking signs, which are in Chinese, Portuguese and English. The biggest surprise were the emergency exit signs: they did not contain any English and were in Portuguese and Chinese only.

Linguistic Pragmatism

Analysts of multilingualism in Macau have described multilingualism in Macau as “an illusion” because official societal Chinese-Portuguese bilingualism is rarely undergirded by individual bilingualism. Indeed, all the people I had extended conversations with were either English speakers from Australia, UK and the USA or Putonghua speakers from Mainland China and Taiwan. With three exceptions none of these had learnt either of the two official languages (the exceptions being an American and a Tawainese who had learnt Cantonese and an Australian who had learnt Portuguese).

Despite the amazing multilingualism in the public signage it may thus well be that the various language communities largely keep themselves to themselves. The fact that each space I visited has its own language practices with regard to signage seems to point in the same direction. If so, it is a pragmatic approach that seems to work perfectly well as a way to manage linguistic diversity and public communication with multiple audiences.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • elana shohamy

    amazing tour in Macau and good indication about the need to examine such diversed contexts via LL in many aocations over time to begin to make sense of ML on the move. thanks Ingrid.

  • Li Jia

    Dear Ingrid, thanks for showing us this pragmatically balanced multilingual Macau.

    Can I add something more on my understanding of Macau’s LLs? I haven’t been to Macau before, but I know the main reasons for most mainland Chinese going there are “shopping” and “gambling”. Interestingly, your first photo about the “front cover of the tourist map” has highlighted the content of “Macau as a shopping and sight-seeing city” in Chinese whereas English only indicates “tourist map” (I assume Japanese version also means the same thing). Another interesting reading is about your “biggest surprise” on the emergency exit signs in gambling areas. No English contained, only Portuguese and Chinese at casinos, reminds me of a series of cop /gangster movies I’ve ever watched in China. Surely any sign in English will bring more troubles to mainland Chinese for emergent “escapement”?

  • Transport signs could be an interesting addition to your discussion on linguistic diversity in Macau. Since there is no rail system there, many people, including tourists, use buses there, and the timetables at bus stops are still written in Portuguese (perhaps new ones are not, though). While I was admiring and trying to figure out the timetables, a few local girls and I happened to engage in a quick conversation, and they said they don’t speak Portuguese at all. For them, Portuguese bus signs perhaps have no practical use, but remain visible in their lives, a daily reminder of the historical linguistic diversity in Macau. Thanks, Ingrid, for yet another fascinating post!

  • Alexandra Grey

    Interesting descriptions of the multilingualism of Macau! I am intrigued that analysts say individual bilingualism does not undergird the official multilingualism of Macau. That does not correspond to my personal experience of meeting people from Macau (all of whom have been bi- or tri-lingual), but my experience may well be skewed because multilingual Macanese can more readily move/travel/work in Mainland China and in other nations, which is where I have met them. Could it also been that the tiny local population is bilingual but the much larger community of monolingual visitors and those who live temporarily in Macau for work swamps the bilinguals?

    Of the people you spoke with personally, Ingrid, did many conform with the analysts’ view that the Macanese as individuals are not bilingual?

  • Lemos

    During colonial Macau, most multilingual residents were the mixed race Macanese, usually fluent in Portuguese, spoken Cantonese, some English (due to proximity to HK), some French (taught in Portuguese high school). Most residents were ethnic chinese monolingual Cantonese speakers. Today, more ethnic chinese are either mandarin speakers or learn it in school. Some below 50s Macanese have learned to read and write Chinese with some also have learned to speak mandarin, to be competitive in the job market. Unfortunately the younger Macanese generation has dropped portuguese, choosing english medium schooling. This process however started in mid to late 70s when most portuguese colonies became independent, it just accelerated after the chinese takeover. So the only trilingual individuals you’re likely to meet are the middle aged Macanese. Unfortunately the Macanese community is tiny at most 4% of population and rapidly disappearing into overwhelming chinese community. They are a bit like the quebecois in canada except that they don’t have a geographical area to claim as majority. If they are officially recognized as ethnic minority, then perhaps they can be more encouraged to maintain the multilingualism. Otherwise Portuguese in Macau can become like Latin in Europe. Of course most educated people in Macau remain likely to know Cantonese, mandarin and limited English.

  • Marcos Llanes

    The people of Macau should adopt spanish as an official language!!!!!

  • Ken Westmoreland

    The irony is that there are more fluent Portuguese speakers in Japan than Macau, Goa and East Timor put together – there are Portuguese language radio stations, TV channels, newspapers and schools, and cash machines offer Portuguese as a language for transactions. That’s all because tens of thousands of Brazilians of Japanese origin emigrated to Japan twenty years ago, a century after their ancestors emigrated from Japan.

    In East Timor, Tetum is heavily influenced by Portuguese, so people have a passive understanding of it, but Cantonese speakers in Macau have nothing like that, or even Konkani speakers in Goa. However, because of China’s growing trade with Brazil and Angola, possibly more mainland Chinese are learning Portuguese than Macau Chinese.

    Marcos Llanes: no gracias!

  • karan chaudhary

    plz, sir how to check and how to provide the macau language sir plz,,, reply sir