Macao as a Linguistically Diverse Community

Macao is a one-of-a-kind city with three primary written languages (Chinese, Portuguese, and English), and four primary spoken languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, Portuguese, and English). Prof Xu Jie, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (FAH) and director of the Centre for Linguistics, has often referred to Macao as a ‘living museum of languages’ or a ‘natural laboratory for multilingualism’. This is the result of the city’s historical development over the centuries and a reflection of the inseparable relationship between language and society.

‘Macao’s unique history, geographical location, economic structure, and political landscape have all contributed to the coexistence of different languages and cultures among its people,’ says Prof Xu. ‘Although the city has an area of just over 30 square kilometres and a population of only about 600,000, the number of languages spoken here is in double figures. Moreover, there has been a long-standing fusion of Chinese and western cultures. Chinese temples and churches being in the same neighbourhood for hundreds of years is an iconic example of multiculturalism. Thanks to the multilingual and multicultural ecology of the city, Macao provides a rare and almost perfect model of a linguistic and cultural research community for the study of linguistic and cultural contact, linguistic and cultural variation, and the interaction and integration of different languages and cultures. The environment also gives rise to a group of first-rate research topics with profound theoretical significance and practical value.’

Prof Xu Jie

The Importance of Language Learning

Prof Xu is most proud of the outstanding international faculty team in FAH. Most of the faculty members engaged in teaching or research at renowned universities around the world before joining UM, and their academic expertise spans the core areas of the humanities, including literature, history, philosophy, languages, translation and the arts. Within the humanities, Prof Xu highlights the importance of developing students’ language skills and promoting language education at the university level.

‘The importance of language skills and language learning cannot be overemphasised,’ says Prof Xu. He contends that language is not only a tool for communication and a symbol of cultural identity, but it also provides a platform for intellectual activities such as acquiring, digesting, integrating, and innovating knowledge. Language skills, namely the command of both native and foreign languages, can also represent a person’s core competencies and competitiveness. Prof Xu further believes that people with strong language skills will be less likely to show poor abilities in other areas, and that language proficiency is itself a manifestation of a person’s overall quality and contributes to all of his or her abilities.

‘Just as mathematics is the foundation of science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine, and history is the background to humanities and social sciences, language is the foundation of all disciplines,’ says Prof Xu. ‘The 4Cs, namely the four core areas of general competence in modern times, are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. All of these are directly or indirectly related to language skills.’

Nurturing Language Professionals to Meet Social Development Needs

Prof Xu adds that FAH has a long-standing reputation for language education in the academic community. The Department of Chinese Language and Literature draws on the strengths of studies both in the mainland and overseas. The department, together with the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University, the School of Chinese Studies at the University of Hong Kong, and the Department of Chinese Literature at Taiwan University, has established an inter-university platform for exchange and collaboration at the highest level in Chinese language studies. The other departments in FAH have their own strengths — The Department of Portuguese is one of the best of its kind, while the Department of English and the Centre for Japanese Studies have for many years been innovative and effective in linking foreign language teaching with intercultural communication skills.

The use of English has a long history in Macao; British traders began arriving in the first half of the 17th century and the British East India Company established a presence in Macao around the start of the 18th century. Andrew Moody, deputy director of the Centre for Linguistics and associate professor in the Department of English, is an expert in the study of world Englishes and one of the few western scholars who has attempted to compile a comprehensive examination of the history of languages and language teaching in Macao. His research is committed to documenting Macao’s long tradition of multilingualism and he has published Macau’s Languages in Society and Education, offering a macro-sociolinguistic examination of English within the multilingual ecology of languages in Macao. He is also currently the editor of English Today, a prestigious academic journal published by Cambridge University Press; the journal is especially known in the academic circle for its debates on the evolution of English over time.

Prof Andrew Moody

‘Macao was the centre of English-speaking culture in South China before 1842, but that is a type of forgotten history. At that time, English speakers were already influencing the multilingual and multicultural development of the city,’ says Prof Moody. ‘Since the 1999 handover and with more and more investment in Macao coming from Asia, Europe, and the United States, we see a growing demand for English speakers that are not only proficient in the language for daily communication but also capable of developing professional skills based on the needs of local industries. To the degree that Macao can successfully retain this talent within the territory, this would help build Macao into a world-class tourism and leisure centre.’

‘In the 21st century, students no longer learn English simply to communicate with native speakers, but they are also driven to exchange knowledge with people from around the world. This is why the world’s leading universities have insisted that proficiency in English is a basic academic requirement,’ adds Prof Moody.

Prof Andrew Moody’s book Macau’s Languages in Society and Education

Curriculum Reform to Strengthen Students’ Academic English Proficiency

The English Language Centre (ELC) at UM is committed to improving the academic English proficiency of students. After several years of researching UM student needs and effective pedagogy for their learning contexts, this year the centre officially launched a reformed English language curriculum to target and strengthen students’ academic English proficiency in university disciplines. According to Prof Katherine Chen, director of ELC and associate professor of applied linguistics in FAH, the curriculum reform aims to better meet the academic learning needs of new students from Chinese-medium secondary schools as they adapt to the English-medium education environment at UM.

Through the years, the centre consulted faculty members about students’ academic English needs in areas such as social sciences, business administration, and advanced technology. To develop foundational-level courses, namely University English 1-3, the centre surveyed available general academic English teaching materials in the market and decided to adopt an academic English textbook series from Oxford University Press (OUP) into project-based learning materials and interactive Moodle activities, which incorporate blended-mode multimedia teaching that complements the learning of the four language skills (speaking, reading, writing and listening), grammar, and academic vocabulary among students. The intermediate-level courses in the new curriculum use ELC’s in-house designed material, including a course that won the British Council English language teaching design award, and focus on academic research-based learning. Students not only hone specific English skills for academic essay writing, discussion, and presentation, but also learn the process of knowledge interpretation, evaluation, and production in the context of English for general academic purposes.

Prof Katherine Chen

Prof Chen remarks that another significant feature of ELC’s new curriculum and the complementary English co-curricular activities is the emphasis on global skills learning (Mercer, et al. 2019)1, which incorporates concepts such as critical, creative and collaborative thinking, digital literacy, learners’ wellbeing, as well as intercultural competence and citizenship. In 2022, ELC is expanding its English co-curricular activity arm to strengthen support for English learning and academic skills learning outside the classroom.

Despite finding the academic English curriculum quite challenging, many of the students noticed an increase in their academic vocabulary and expressions. In addition, they appreciate the pedagogy of process writing and presentation, which scaffold learning to allow them to improve language skills and build up confidence.

Immersive Language Environment for Portuguese Language Acquisition

As the largest academic unit for Portuguese language studies outside Portugal and Brazil, the UM Department of Portuguese has collaborated with Portuguese universities to develop high-level joint programmes, with the aim of nurturing bilingual professionals in Chinese and Portuguese to support Macao’s goal of building a platform for economic and trade cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries.

Ana Nunes, an expert in applied linguistics who is also deputy director of the Chinese-Portuguese Bilingual Teaching and Training Centre and associate professor of Portuguese, has been teaching at UM for 13 years. Over the years, she has taken Chinese classes to learn Chinese pronunciation and grammatical structure, and has self-studied some particularities of phonetics and phonology of Cantonese and Mandarin. One of her methods to help students overcome difficulties in learning Portuguese is to show them the differences between the phonetic features of Chinese and Portuguese. She has also written a number of papers to share her teaching experience in the academic circle. ‘Our curriculum is tailored to the age, language level, and learning needs of students and the subjects are interlinked with each other. In the courses, students are given clear goals for their studies and are expected to monitor their learning progress and outcomes,’ says Prof Nunes. ‘Generally speaking, after four years of studies, students will be able to speak Portuguese fluently, and can even reach the B1 or B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.’

Prof Ana Nunes

An immersive Portuguese language environment is also beneficial to adult learners. Zhang Jing, coordinator of the Bachelor of Arts in Portuguese Studies programme and assistant professor in the Department of Portuguese, says that based on her years of teaching experience, she believes that people in different stages of life have different language learning advantages. For example, university students have a clear motivation to learn with good concentration ability as well as reading and writing skills. She has worked together with several scholars, including Maria José Grosso, a long-time faculty member and visiting professor in the department, who is also an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Lisbon, to conduct a study of adult learners of Portuguese who are native Chinese speakers. The study aimed to analyse the current situation of adult learners and the challenges facing them. The scholars also published a book titled Framework Teaching Portuguese as a Foreign Language in China, which aims to help readers understand the current development of Portuguese language teaching in mainland China and Macao.

Prof Zhang Jing

Prof Zhang also points out that UM has excellent resources in Portuguese language education. The university supports students to study at universities in Portuguese-speaking countries in their third year, which can have a positive impact on their acquisition of Portuguese language skills and understanding of the local culture. ‘Located in a city with a mixture of both Chinese and western cultures, UM has developed its multicultural DNA,’ says Prof Zhang. ‘The unique cultural fabric of the city and the multilingual academic environment of UM can help students overcome the challenges of learning Portuguese.’

Framework Teaching Portuguese as a Foreign Language in China, co-authored by Prof Zhang Jing, Prof Maria José Grosso and other scholars

Building a World-Class Centre for Chinese Studies

Prof Xu is an expert in Chinese linguistics and a Chang Jiang Scholar Chair Professor. Before joining UM in 2008, he held different positions in teaching and research in mainland China, the United States, and Singapore for more than 20 years. At UM, he served as head of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature before becoming dean of FAH.

According to Prof Xu, the Department of Chinese Language and Literature is one of the university’s key departments, with a strong faculty team and high academic standards. ‘Diversity is the driving force behind academic development and each academic department should try to find its speciality,’ says Prof Xu. ‘In our department, we advocate a global perspective and aim to explore the phenomenon of Chinese language and literature within the larger framework of human language and literature, in order to tell the stories of China and Macao in a way that people around the world can understand.’

Strong Cross-cultural Research Capacity

Linguistics scholars at UM have achieved many outstanding results in language and cultural studies. From 2017 to 2021, they collectively published over 250 papers in academic journals, such as Studies of the Chinese Language, Contemporary Linguistics, World Englishes, Lingua, and Journal of Pragmatics. In addition, South China Quarterly, a comprehensive academic journal in the humanities and social sciences edited and published by UM, was ranked third in sharing rate among all academic journals published by Chinese higher education institutions in 2020. According to Prof Xu, these achievements are testament to UM’s distinctive features and clear advantages over its counterparts in China in areas such as comparative linguistics, applied linguistics, and translation studies.

Established in 2022, the Centre for Linguistics aims to bring together linguists from different academic units to promote cross-linguistic research and further contribute to linguistic disciplines in Macao.

Multiple Career Paths for Language Professionals

Over the past decade, FAH has produced over 3,300 graduates who have gone on to pursue careers in areas such as education, translation, business, and administration worldwide, or to pursue further studies at prestigious universities, such as the University of Chicago, Boston University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the University of Hong Kong. Graduates of UM’s Chinese and Portuguese programmes are not only hired by local schools as language teachers — some of them have found job opportunities in the more than 50 universities with Portuguese language programmes in mainland China. ‘With the development of our society and economy, more and more employers, including banks, trading companies, tech companies, and government departments, feel the need to hire professionals who are fluent in Chinese, Portuguese, and English. Many of our graduates are employed by these companies every year,’ says Prof Xu.

He adds that the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the Department of English, the Department of Portuguese, and the Centre for Japanese Studies are committed to producing language professionals for China and Macao. ‘Students with language skills can always find opportunities to showcase their talent, no matter whether they are in Macao, in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area or other parts of the world,’ says Prof Xu.


1. Mercer, S., Hockly, N., Stobart, G., & Galés, N. L. (2019). Global skills: Creating empowered 21st century citizens. OUP English Language Teaching Expert Panel, Oxford University Press.

Source: UMagazine Issue 25