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Language shift ahead of handover

MACAO.

Critics claim the opening of a new school in Macao is an admission of defeat by the Portuguese administration which had promised to leave a Portuguese-speaking bastion in Asia.

The 600-pupil school, intended to teach Portuguese beyond the handover of sovereignty to China in 1999, has been described as only a "token gesture" by one legislator.

A foundation was set up last month to run Portuguese-curriculum schools, but these are being wound down and existing government schools are moving towards Cantonese. Most of the ethnic Portuguese- 4,000 of the 400,000 population- are expected to leave by 1999.

The Macao Portuguese Education Foundation (MEPA)is a joint undertaking by the Portuguese government, the Lisbon-based Orient Foundation and the Macanese Education Promotion Association. With a start-up capital of about Pounds 2 million, 51 per cent from Portugal, the foundation will set up the new school in September. It will cater for nursery pupils to 18-year-olds.

But several community leaders have complained about its small size. Legislator Morais Alves described the project as a "minimalist solution".

Although Chinese and Portuguese will both be official languages after 1999, Portuguese is barely used outside the civil service, and Portuguese schools make up just 5 per cent of the total.

At present 2,350 students attend schools teaching the Portuguese curriculum. This does not include the 14,000 who learn Portuguese as a foreign language.

Church schools, which make up 83 per cent of Macao's schools, are Chinese-medium and tend to teach English as the second language. The government allows students to choose between English and Portuguese but the importance of English as a world language and a shortage of Portuguese teachers has meant Portuguese is declining even as a second language.

Many believe the new school will be overshadowed by a larger, English-medium International School due to open in September.

Yojana Sharma

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