Language Education Policy Studies
An International Network
New members welcome!
Sociopolitical and Linguistic Contexts of Macao

Macao has a total land area of just 27 square kilometers with a population of almost 470,000. Its economy is based largely on tourism, which contributes more than 50% of Macau’s GDP together with the industry of gaming and hospitality.

In 1557, Macau was leased to Portugal from Ming China as a trading port; until 1887, when Macau became a colony through a mutual agreement between Portugal and the Qing Government of China, not under Chinese authority and sovereignty.


In 1987, the Portuguese and Chinese governments agreed that Macao would revert to China on 20 December 1999. Now Macao is a Special Administrative Region of China, which remains its current social system and way of life unchanged for 50 years. Due to the Portuguese government’s less interventionist role until the end of the colonial period in 1999, in Macao, Cantonese, Putonghua, English and Portuguese were used and developed side by side in a rather laissez faire way. In the schools, Chinese was the primary language of instruction, with 84.1% primary school pupils and 73% secondary-level pupils studying in it. The Portuguese-medium schooling usually existed in sectors supported by the colonial government.


The Macao SAR government set Chinese and Portuguese as the official languages and chose Chinese as the medium of instruction in Macao education, which are important aspects of language planning and language policy. It enforces the language policy, together with other forces such as the middle class who can get access to higher education due to economic progress, Chinese intellectuals, international scholars and expatriates academics and well-educated, liberal professionals from Portugal who immigrate to Macao.


Nowadays, Cantonese serves as a kind of lingua franca among Chinese in Macao and traditional Chinese characters rather than simplified ones are used for writing in Macao. This may result from its traditional economic tie with Hong Kong for a long time and most of its Chinese population who has been speaking Cantonese.

Although Portuguese is not a popular language in Macao, it is still encouraged to use it today. According to Macao Basic Law, in addition to the Chinese language, Portuguese may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of Macao. From the government perspective, the Portuguese language does bring Macao connections with Portugal itself and with other countries such as Brazil, East Timor and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa. In addition, the Portuguese language differentiates Macao from Hong Kong and the mainland of China.






Macao to play bigger role as China’s ties with Portuguese-speaking countries grow


Bray, M., & Koo, R. (2004). Postcolonial patterns and paradoxes: language and education in Hong Kong and Macao, Comparative Education, 40(2), 215-239.

Ieong, Sylvia S. L (1993). Reflections on the Language Issues in Macau: Policies, Realities, and Prospects.

Tsui, A. B. M. (2007). Language Policy and the Social Construction of Identity: The case of Hong Kong. In A. B. M. Tsui, James W. Tollefson (Eds.), Language Policy, Culture and Identity in Asian Contexts (pp.121-141). Mahwah, N.J., USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Yan, Xi &Moody, Andrew (2010). Language and Society in Macao: A review of sociolinguistic studies on Macao in the past three decades. Chinese Language and Discourse 1(2), pp.293-324. Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins Publishing Company.


This web page has a copyright. It may be referred to and quoted, or reproduced and distributed for educational purposes according to fair use legislation only if the following citation is included in the document:

This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Jing Zhu. (2018). Sociopolitical and Linguistic Contexts of Macao. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved at: (insert link) 

Widget is loading comments...