What Languages Are Spoken In Macao?

The ruins of St. Paul, Macao.
The ruins of St. Paul, Macao.

Macao (also spelled Macau) is a Special Administration Region located in southern China. It is 145 km (90 mi) south of the city of Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), China, and 64 km (40 mi) east of Hong Kong. The Cantonese variety of the Chinese language is spoken in southern China. With Macao being located in this region, Cantonese is spoken in Macao.

Chinese (Cantonese) is one of the official languages of Macao, the other one is Portuguese. This is a reflection on Macau's history, cultural geography, and geopolitics.

Macao's Colonial History

In 1554, a trading treaty was established between China and Portugal. This would be known as the Luso-Chinese agreement of 1554. Trading by the Portuguese in China was legalized, with the provision that a tax was paid. In 1557, a Portuguese settlement was established at Macao. Macao would grow into a center for trade. While it was administered by Portugal since the 16th century, the Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking, another trade treaty, would officially make Macao a colony of Portugal. Macao would remain a Portuguese colony until 1999.

Portugal's Legacy In Macao

Even though the Portuguese conducted an immense amount of trade in China, the Portuguese language was mostly used by Portuguese individuals. The Chinese living in Macao mostly spoke the Cantonese variety of Chinese. When it became a Portuguese colony, Portuguese was made an official language of Macao, alongside Chinese (Cantonese). With Macao as a colony of Portugal, hierarchical diffusion of Portuguese culture to Macao took place. What this means is that cultural influences from Portugal could be established in Macao through direct migration and rule. Most of Macao's Christian population are members of the Roman Catholic Church. Portugal is a Catholic nation. The food in Macao is distinct from the rest of China, as there is a blend of southern Chinese and Portuguese cuisinese. The Portuguese language itself is a result of Portuguese influence in Macao.

Macanese Portuguese

While Portuguese is an officlal language in Macao, only 7% of Macao's population is fluent in it. 3% of the population speaks it as a first language. The vast majority of residents speak Cantonese Chinese. Macao has its own version of Portuguese, known as Macanese Portuguese. Macanese Portuguese is distinct as it has Cantonese influences. Macanese Portuguese also has influences from Sinhalese, Konkani, and Marathi languages. All of those languages are spoken in Goa and Sri Lanka, places that were once ruled by Portugal. The language also has some words borrowed from Malay.

Macanese Patois

Macanese Patois is spoken in Macao as well. This is a Portuguese-derived creole grammatically divergent from Portuguese. It is a result of fusion of several other languages. It is distinct from Macanese Portuguese. Portuguese spoken in Macao is the Portuguese language, with some influences from Cantonese. Macanese Patois is divergent from Portuguese, although it has a basis in Portuguese.

Macao's Political System

Macao has Chinese and Portuguese as its official languages for another reason. Macao is a Special Administrative Region. China has a policy of "one country, two systems". Under this system, Macao is allowed a higher degree of autonomy compared to other parts of China. Its foreign affairs and military are controlled by China. Macao has its own currency, customs policy, and legal system. This has allowed for Portuguese being counted as an official language in Macao.


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