No place for Portuguese?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am

One of the least-spoken official languages in the world is no doubt Macau's Portuguese, with less than 0.7 per cent of residents using it in daily conversation. Only one Portuguese language school has survived Macau's handover to China, and now the former enclave is having difficulty keeping that alive.

Set up in 1998, the Macau Portuguese School was intended to 'uphold Portuguese language and culture' in post-handover Macau, according to the decree on its foundation.

The private school, which is funded by the Portuguese Ministry of Education and a trust fund, the Oriental Foundation, offers Primary One to Form Six courses in Portuguese.

Now, seven years after the handover, uncertainty hangs over the school's future. But it is not all about apathy towards the language.

The school sits on a plot of land where tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun's Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM) plans to build its Grand Lisboa casino development. In 2004, SJM convinced the school to move to Taipa Island, but the plan failed after it drew opposition from nearby residents: they argued that the new location was meant to become a park.

Last month, the government proposed to relocate the school to the waterfront. But, on the site they suggested, it would block the view of the harbour from the A-Ma Temple. That prompted historians and legislators to slam the proposal, saying it would damage the surroundings of the landmark temple, which honours the goddess of seafarers.

Jose Oliveira Paulo, head of the school's parent association, said he was puzzled that it seemed so difficult to find a small plot of land for the city's only Portuguese-language school.

The decreasing number of students poses another challenge. There were more than 1,000 students in 1999, but there are just 600 today. This is not surprising, as the Portuguese-speaking population has shrunk. People of Portuguese descent fell from 3 per cent of the population in 1991 to 1.8 per cent in 2001, while the number of people speaking Portuguese in daily life has more than halved over the same period.

After the handover, knowledge of Chinese has inevitably replaced that of Portuguese as an essential criterion for promotion in the civil service.

The shrinking Portuguese population also makes it difficult and expensive to hire qualified teachers, with 90 per cent of the school's operational cost going into teachers' salaries.

The Macau government has pledged to build the city into an economic bridge between China and Portuguese-speaking countries, but the future of the school - with a natural bridging role - looks decidedly hazy at the moment.