The English language, one of the most widely spoken languages across the globe, does not have an institutional status in Macau, but its use both within government departments and across various sectors of society appears to have been growing.
On board a bus speeding through the local streets, one often hears a woman’s voice announcing each stop in four languages: Cantonese, Portuguese, Mandarin and English. It’s not surprising either that many citizens use English to communicate within government departments, or for business purposes.
University of Macau associate professor of English, Andrew Moody, says: “Public announcements, signage, broadcasts, and services all suggest that the increase in the amount of English [spoken] in the territory is widespread throughout many sectors of society.”
Data released by the Statistics and Census Service (DSEC) from the 2006 By-census shows that 1.5 percent of the residential population reported the use of English as their usual language, while in 2011 that number rose by 2.3 percent.
Professor Moody told the Times in an email interview that looking into the total number of English users is perhaps even more informative. While in 2006, 16.6 percent of the population claimed to use English, that percentage rose to 21.1 percent in 2011, representing a 40 percent increase in the total number of people who claim to know English.
Meanwhile, Macau’s population grew by 10 percent in those years.
The UM professor wrote an essay, published in 2008, titled “Macau English: Status, functions and forms.” In the paper, he argues that although English has no institutional status in Macau, it is, in practice, ‘a de facto’ official language of the territory.
“When I see government announcements, documents, forms and broadcasts supplied to residents in Chinese, Portuguese and English, this suggests that the language already has an official status,” the professor recalled.
“When educational institutions are regulated to offer English as a second language instruction or English-medium of instruction,” he explains, “this suggests that the language has an official status.”
The same conclusion can be reached, he suggests, when commercial institutions also use English as “a lingua franca.”
The professor says that he has not changed his position about the status of English: “I would simply argue that we should recognize ‘de facto’ official status as well as ‘de jure’ [when a language is official by an act of law].”
University of Macau professor Kit Kelen says that in the 15 years that he has been teaching creative writing and literature here, he has observed that interest in English among students has always been strong.
“The fact that there are more mainland students means that the University of Macau is becoming a regional center for English-language learning and some related activities – especially literature, creative writing, poetry and translation,” he added.
Comparing Macau’s situation to Hong Kong, he acknowledged that English in the neighboring SAR is at times resented as the language of the colonial oppressor, whereas, in Macau, English “has no administrative baggage” and is used when needed.
However, there’s room for improvement, especially within the tourism industry.
“A lot more could be done to the get the tourism industry and related industries better geared up for English use. Taxis are the obvious case. Everyone knows how bad the taxis are in Macau,” he says.
“Of course, there are some lovely exceptions, but it’s because they are overwhelmingly so bad that there’s a name and shame Facebook page about Macau taxis – with almost 5,000 members when there are only 700 taxis or so in Macau,” Professor Kelen adds.
He believes that there are simple and practical things that the government could do “to lift the city’s game in terms of being an English-language-friendly destination.” In addition, he suggests that universities could be playing a helpful role to make it happen.
Professor Kelen says that it’s important to preserve Portuguese, Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters, too. “It’s important to promote and preserve all of the cultures and literatures of Macau. One of the best ways of doing this is by making them also available in English – the language of the world!”
The Government Information Bureau (GCS) said that although English is not an official language, the government has observed an increase in demand for information to be provided in English, specifically addressing growing communities who do not speak any of Macau’s official languages.
GCS points out that the government has been publishing a large part of its Policy Address in English since 2000. Furthermore, in addition to information in Chinese and Portuguese, the authorities also release statements in English on relevant topics, particularly regarding the Policy Address, public health, and other matters that might be of interest to foreign media.
In the first quarter of this year, 260 press releases were issued in English. In 2014, there were a total of 883 press releases and statements in English. Out of 22 speeches issued through GCS, the Chief Executive delivered seven speeches in English.
The bureau admits, however, that government officials might not always release their speeches via GCS.
In a reply via email, GCS says that, in recent years, it has hired more staff to manage information in English and handle a greater workload.
“In addition to meet[ing] the developments of Macau and the needs of the English-language users, quite a number of government departments’ websites have the English version providing information about the services and news of related departments,” said the office of the Secretary for Administration and Justice.
Although acknowledging that it is difficult to speculate on what motives drive the government’s desire to provide a considerable amount of information in English, Professor Moody believes “that the motivation is not to make the information communicative,” since more than 90 percent of the population actually speaks Cantonese.
He recalls that English has often been associated with education, particularly higher education. It has, therefore, been associated with values like “competent administration” or “effective governance.”
“The appearance of government information in English symbolically suggests that the information is of somewhat higher quality, or that the delivery of information is more competent,” although it doesn’t mean that information provided in English is actually better.
In Macau and often in other countries, the amount of government information provided in their official languages and in English varies considerably.
Professor Moody concluded by saying, “The presence of English in Macau – as with many other places worldwide – suggests that the communicator has an international outlook.”
Official use of English ‘neglected’ in HK
The government of the neighboring SAR has been accused of neglecting the use of English in communicating with the public and the media, instead favoring Chinese language, the South China Morning Post reported last month.
The report recalled that the policy of ministers penning Chinese-only blogs is a regular practice, with no English translations being provided, even though their blogs reflect upon important policy ideas.
In addition, ministers are more often delivering public speeches and issuing statements in Chinese. Follow-up questions are rarely provided in English, according to the report.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made 61 public speeches in Chinese over the 12 months leading up to the end of May. He delivered 28 speeches in English over the same period.
City Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching stressed that there was a clear problem, which the government was refusing to acknowledge. “I have a feeling that the government is trying to shut down the use of English, in order to emphasize the fact that Hong Kong is a mainland city, and that English is just a second language for Hong Kongers,” she said, adding: “This is not right, since English shares an equal status with Chinese.”