Macao SAR

The Education and Youth Affairs Bureau

Language and Literacy

Macao is a small island city located on the western bank of the Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong Province of the Peopleʼs Republic of China. It adjoins the Chinese Mainland city of Zhuhai, lies some 60 kilometers to the west of Hong Kong, and comprises the Macao Peninsula, Taipa, and Coloane. The Macao Peninsula is the hub of the territory and is connected to Taipa by three bridges. The population of Macao as of December 2015 was approximately 646,800.1 Portuguese explorers arrived and settled in Macao in the mid-16th century, and the city’s current architecture, art, religion, traditions, food, and community reflect the integration of Chinese, Western, and Portuguese cultures. Macao has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China since December 20, 1999, and it exercises a high degree of autonomy under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Macao has rapidly grown in size since 1999 with more buildings on reclaimed land. In 2005, the Historic Centre of Macao was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a result of its distinctive historical, cultural, and societal setting.2

Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macao, and the dialect of Cantonese is spoken most widely in everyday use. These official languages are used in all government departments and in all official documents and communications. English is mostly used in the fields of trade, tourism, and commerce.

According to the 2011 census, 83.3 percent of the population (449,274 people) age 3 and older regularly used Cantonese as their everyday language, down 4.6 percentage points from 2001. With rising numbers of immigrants and nonresident workers coming into Macao daily, the proportion of the population regularly speaking Putonghua (5 percent) and English (2.3 percent) as their usual language had risen by 3.4 and 1.6 percentage points, respectively, since 2001. In terms of language capability, 41.4 percent of the population was able to speak Putonghua (also known as Mandarin), up 14.7 percentage points over the preceding decade; 21.1 percent was able to speak English; and 2.4 percent could speak Portuguese.3

Since the establishment of the Macao SAR government, there has been rapid development in terms of Macao’s economy, the range of political parties in society, culture, and nontertiary education. Hence, it has been necessary for the government to formulate a forward looking language education policy that caters to Macao’s immediate and anticipated future needs. The Language Education Policy in the Scope of Nontertiary Education was formulated in 2008, specifying the status of the Chinese, Portuguese, and English languages in society. There is a particular emphasis on biliteracy (Chinese and Portuguese) in terms of the formal languages used in society, and a trilingual emphasis (Cantonese, Putonghua, Portuguese) in the everyday languages used.4

The objectives of the Language Education Policy are:5

  • To specify, taking account of Macao’s legal system, history, cultural, and commercial characteristics, the relative status of Chinese, Portuguese, and English in society
  • To emphasize in educational provision for students to become biliterate in terms of mastery of written Chinese and Portuguese, and trilingual in terms of fluency in spoken Cantonese, Putonghua, and Portuguese
  • To maintain a healthy proportion of Chinese-Portuguese bilinguals in society
  • To establish effective arrangements in schools for teaching and promoting mastery of Putonghua, Portuguese, and English
  • To provide adequate human and language education resources in Macao’s schools and other education institutions
  • To draw up regulations pertaining to the delivery of language education in Macao’s educational establishments
  • To formulate regulations relating to curriculum design as well as the required conditions for schools planning to use unofficial languages as the medium of instruction

In 2004, the former Chief Executive of the Macao Special Administrative Region of the Peopleʼs Republic of China proposed the following statement in his policy address: “We will introduce and promote reading throughout the curriculum, to cultivate a lifelong reading habit and interest among students.”6 This statement can be regarded as the starting point for the formulation of a new official reading policy. At the same time, the government outlined a number of guiding principles and educational provisions associated with spoken language promotion and reading development practices closely attached to Macao’s general literacy promotion policies. For instance, schools could apply for subsidies from the Education Development Fund to purchase books, newspapers, other periodicals, and ebooks through the School Development Plan; schools were subsidized to hire reading promotion staff; and Chinese, Portuguese, and English reading programs were launched online. To place emphasis on the cultivation of studentsʼ reading literacy, the standard of literacy attainment of students was added to The Requirements of Basic Academic Attainments in the language learning area. In addition, Macao agreed to participate in international large scale educational surveys such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).7