Speaking of Portuguese

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

Students learning Portuguese in Macau give surprisingly blunt answers when asked why they want to learn the language. 'I like [soccer player] Cristiano Ronaldo,' said Thai Thi Thu Trang, a student from the University of Hanoi taking a one-month intensive class here.

Whatever their reasons, learning Portuguese has become the latest fashion in Macau. Nearly six years after the handover, unprecedented numbers of teenagers and adults are signing up for language classes. At the 1,000-student Institute of Portugal in the Orient (Ipor) - the Portuguese counterpart to the British Council and Alliance Francaise - there are 200 people on the waiting list for the beginners' class.

There has never been such a long waiting list, says Ipor president Antonio Vasconcelos de Saldanha. Day and night, phone calls pour in from government officials and other notables in Macau, asking Mr Saldanha to add somebody's child or nephew to a class. 'There is a limitation of venues and we do not have enough teachers,' he explains. 'Otherwise we would ... open more classes.'

Students from all over Asia are coming to Macau to take advantage of the Lusophone environment. Given the large volume of Chinese-Brazilian trade, more pragmatic students say the language will enable them to land jobs at trading companies or the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

'Every Chinese who can speak Portuguese is 100 per cent guaranteed to have a job,' claimed Qian Mingfeng, a student from the Shanghai University of Foreign Language Studies. Instead of using his Chinese name, he insists that his friends call him Fabiano.

At the University of Macau, the bachelor's degree for Portuguese as a second language is oversubscribed. More than 400 applicants competed for 30 vacancies for the school year starting in September. Three years ago, only 17 applied.

Even though only 2 to 3 per cent of the local population speaks Portuguese, this official language of Macau shows little sign of dying out. Instead, it is poised to stay as a common second or third language among the next generation.

'Until 1999, all [university] students had to take Portuguese as a required elective,' said Maria Antonia Nicolau Espadinha, head of the University of Macau's Portuguese department. 'But now they have a choice - and they choose to take it.'

That is what happened with translation major Isabel Lei Cheng-i, who is fluent in English, Chinese and Japanese. She was taught Portuguese in secondary school but learned little. At university, she took it up again as a beginner. 'Translators in Macau are in short [supply],' she said. 'I am going to help fill that need.'