Language barrier

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am

Yang Jing-yi, 21, says: 'My name is Contanca Rosa.' She apologises as she stumbles over the English words, and says her Portuguese is much better.

Ms Yang is one of a handful of mainland students who have come to Macau to learn Portuguese. At the end of her five-year study programme at the University of Macau, Ms Yang is certain she will find a job as a Chinese-Portuguese business translator.

The conviction came about when she learned of the mainland's growing trade ties with the eight Portuguese-speaking - or Lusitanic - countries: Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome, Principe and East Timor.

'Nowadays there's a greater need for Chinese and Portuguese interpreters because of increasing business between the two communities,' she says.

Although Ms Yang says Chinese are increasingly interested in picking up the language, the two Macau universities with Portuguese departments - the University of Macau and Macau Inter-University Institute - have caps on the number of mainland acceptances to their schools (as do Hong Kong universities). Of 180 students studying Portuguese at the University of Macau, for instance, only 28 are mainlanders.

This could make Ms Yang's bilingual skills even more valuable, particularly as the mainland looks to new markets to reduce its dependence on the United States.

Brazil and Angola are particularly important business partners, says Dora de Almedia, a Portuguese language instructor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Brazil is one of the world's largest producers of sugar, coffee and soya, while Angola exports oil.

'You can't do business in, let alone get around, many Portuguese communities without some knowledge of the language,' she says. 'Portuguese is easy to master, especially if you have experience in any other Latin European languages.'

It may be hard to believe Portugal ruled half the world by the early 1400s, along with Spain. After Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, the two countries divided their colonies, signing a treaty two years later that drew a longitudinal line dividing the lands they discovered. This is how Portugal wound up ruling the eight Lusitanic countries.

Portugal continued to plant its flag on smaller colonies, such as Macau and Goa. Macau's handover to the mainland in 1999 marked the end of Portuguese colonialism. Signs of Portuguese culture in Hong Kong are few and far between, but there is still a tiny community of indigenous Portuguese. According to Ms de Almeida, the British brought 'boatloads' of staff from Macau, because they were seen as 'cheap English-speaking labourers'.

'In the 1860s, there were more Portuguese than British in Hong Kong.'