Portuguese makes comeback in Macau

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2009, 12:00am

The Portuguese language, whose use in Macau appeared to be on the decline immediately following the handover, seems to be undergoing a renaissance.

Part of this is due to the growing number of native speakers who are drawn to the city from Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries. Attracted by China's booming economy, they are arriving in growing numbers to pursue careers or set up businesses in the enclave.

The number of Chinese people studying Portuguese as a second or third language is also on the rise. An increasing number of students are studying the language at the secondary and tertiary level, and the number of adults enrolling in classes at o Instituto Portugu?s do Oriente (IPOR), which offers classes at several levels, has never been higher.

'More people are studying Portuguese now than 10 years ago,' boasts Manuel Carvalho, consul general of Portugal in Macau and Hong Kong. 'About 1,000 Chinese study Portuguese at IPOR each semester.'

Expecting a decline in interest in learning the language, the Institute of Portuguese Studies at the University of Macau was downgraded to a mere department several years back. This is now being looked upon as a mistake. There are 30 permanent staff, 75 per cent with PhDs, and eight part-timers.

'On the eve of the transition in 1999, everyone forecast the worst scenario for Portuguese,' said Alan Baxter, head of the Portuguese department at the University of Macau. ''You guys won't have any students after the handover', we were told. Quite the contrary. The BA in Portuguese studies was launched in 2001 with only nine students. It now has a constant enrolment of 240 students.'

In addition to the BA programme in Portuguese studies, the department runs two master's programmes, one in translation studies and one in Portuguese language and culture, and a PhD in linguistics.

Because Macau's legal code is written in Portuguese, the faculty of law teaches classes in the language. Students from all other faculties can also take Portuguese classes as an elective subject.

'Students are even being head-hunted in their fourth year by Chinese and Portuguese-speaking businesses,' Professor Baxter said. 'With the current expansion of Chinese interests in the Portuguese-speaking world, Macau is serving as a platform for many of the trade interfaces between China and Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal and Sao Tome and Principe.

'Portuguese-speaking Africa is on the rise, and Brazil is an immense force. China will continue to be involved with these countries for many years to come.'

Between 80 and 85 per cent of the students studying Portuguese are from Macau, with most of the rest coming from the mainland. The department also runs a summer language programme, which draws students not only from Greater China, but also from Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Eleven universities on the mainland and the University of Hong Kong also offer programmes in the language.