Map of Asia (1627). Authors Bertius; Danckerts; Tavernier. No Copyright
Map of Asia (1627). Authors Bertius; Danckerts; Tavernier

The Role of the Portuguese Language in Lusophone Asia

This post is also available in: Deutsch Português

Written by Dietrich Köster

Portuguese India/Estado da Índia Portuguesa – Goa, Daman/Damão and Diu

Until the invasion of Nehru’s troops in December 1961 Portuguese was the official language, while after the annexation English received this status. The local languages Konkani in Goa and Gujarati in Damão and Diu only play a minor role in public life. Even during the Portuguese time there were more secondary schools with English as teaching medium in Goa than those with Portuguese as language of instruction. Since the annexation the Portuguese language is only offered as a second or third language subject in some schools.

The last Portuguese-language newspaper completely switched to English at the beginning of 1984. Thus “O Heraldo” changed its title to “Herald”. The newspaper “A Vida” ceased to appear altogether. Today there are only papers in English and in Indian languages. The sole reading material in Portuguese I could acquire in a bookshop was a series of five volumes of textbooks for learning Portuguese “UM PASSO NOVO”. Additionally the opportunity to study Portuguese is offered at the University of Goa. The lecturer appointed by the Instituto Camões Dr Lume told me that he is in charge of more than 60 students.

The official Portuguese presence in Goa is nowadays limited to a Consulate-General and a newly opened branch of the Portuguese cultural institution Fundação do Oriente. Today the knowledge of the Portuguese language is mainly limited to the Christian part of the local elder generation.


The Chinese are by 97% the overwhelming part of the population, followed by 2% Portuguese. The latter are often sent from Portugal for a fixed period to serve in the public administration or in educational institutions. Until 1991 Portuguese was the only official language. Since this year Chinese has the same status. In everyday life you can make yourself understood everywhere in Chinese, whereas the chance to make use of Portuguese is possible only to a limited extent, the English language being as business language a strong competitor to the official language of European origin, simply due to the proximity of Hongkong. In the past the Portuguese administration of Macau practised a deplorable neglect in Portuguese language matters. Only in the few Portuguese or Luso-Chinese schools Portuguese is the teaching medium or a compulsary subject respectively. In the numerous Chinese schools Portuguese is just offered as an optional subject. Nevertheless all public notices and signposting – also regarding the shops – are always designed in both official languages.

Portuguese Timor – East Timor

Even the young generation, who has not witnessed the Indonesian invasion in 1975, is engaged in selfdetermination and independence of East Timor, although most young people have little or no knowledge of Portuguese. The Indonesian school system does not provide instruction in this language. Instead all pupils and students have to learn the language Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on the Malay language. The sole group of people, who wholeheartedly welcomed the integration of East Timor into the Indonesian state, are the migrants, who were sent by the Jacarta government to East Timor in the framework of the resettlement scheme “Transmigrasi”. In contrast to the Timorese of the elder and middle generation this group of people do not know a single word of Portuguese. Thus they are easy to spot as people from another country, having replaced the Chinese business community to a great extent, who had fled to Australia in 1975.

All inscriptions in the public sphere and every publication are exclusively carried out in Bahasa Indonesia. There are no publications in Portuguese accessible to the general public. Just the names of the streets were kept from the Portuguese time, while placing instead of “rua” or “avenida” the Indonesian word “jalan” in front. As only other lasting memory there are several monuments with Portuguese inscription. One of them is commemorating the fifth centenary of the death of Henry the Navigator in 1960.

As an outstanding personality I met Father Eduardo Brito of the Catholic parish of Balide in Díli. He had come from Margão/Goa to Portuguese Timor in a group of 40 priests in 1947. Only three priests are still alive and remain active in their adopted country. For his many years of great merits Father Brito was honoured by governor Abílio José Osório Soares in 1995 by installing a monument with his bust already during his lifetime. His final resting this priest will find in a crypt in front of this monument.

Situation as of mid-1997

This post is also available in: Deutsch Português

About Marco Ramerini

I am passionate about history, especially the history of geographical explorations and colonialism.