Why Does Macau Speak Portuguese?

Portuguese is prominent in Macau
Portuguese is prominent in Macau | © Montserrat Labiaga Ferrer / Wiki Commons
Matthew Keegan

As a former colony of Portugal for nearly 450 years, Portuguese remains an official language in Macau and has even seen an uptick in people studying the language.

Background

The Portuguese language was first introduced to Macau by Portuguese traders who settled in the region in the mid 16th-century. However, it wasn’t until Macau officially became a Portuguese colony in 1887 that it was made an official language along with Cantonese.

Despite being a former colony of Portugal for close to 450 years, Portuguese has never been spoken by more than a small minority of the population in Macau. The language was mostly limited to the Portuguese colonists, their administration, and higher echelons of society.

The former flag of Portuguese Macau

After the handover back to China in 1999, it was thought that the use of Portuguese would decline immediately, but the opposite was true. Many people in Macau have sought to preserve the link to the Portuguese language and culture as representations of their unique cultural heritage that cannot be found anywhere else in China.

The Institute of Portuguese Studies at the University of Macau has seen steady enrolment of students in the years following the handover. Despite there only being one school in Macau where Portuguese is the medium of instruction, the Macau Portuguese School, Chinese people studying Portuguese as a second or third language has increased.

Portuguese influence is represented by colonial style buildings like the Macau Government Headquarters

Patuá

Alongside Portuguese, Macau’s Eurasian community “the Macanese”, who are of mixed Portuguese-Chinese ancestry, developed their own language called Patuá. This distinct Portuguese creole blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, and developed in Macau during Portuguese rule. However, Patuá is now facing extinction and it’s estimated that there are fewer than 50 speakers worldwide.

Portuguese in Macau today

Portuguese remains an official language in Macau, as is evident by the local street signs written in both Portuguese and Chinese. However, according to results of the 2016 By-Census, the overwhelming majority of the population speak Cantonese as a first language – 80.1% compared to just 2.3% that speak Portuguese. Moreover, just 0.6% of households have Portuguese as their mainly-spoken language.

However, Portuguese media sustains a healthy presence in Macau with three Portuguese-language dailies, radio stations and a free-to-air Portuguese television channel provided by Macau’s main public broadcaster TDM. In addition, Macau’s legal code is written in Portuguese – therefore law students at University of Macau take their classes in Portuguese.

Street signs in Macau are displayed in both Portuguese and Chinese
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