How Much Energy Will It Take to Make Portuguese Go Global?

On December 15, 2009, I was invited to participate in a radio interview over the Voice of America. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was ending, and once again, as has been the case throughout the 2000s, Brazil was up front as a major protagonist for its region as well as for other developing countries. Throughout this period, the country’s global influence repeatedly has been manifested in the international community, such as the firm position it took in opposing Honduran President Zelaya’s ouster and its command of the military component of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Given the mounting evidence of Brazil’s impressive thrust in world affairs, the Voice of America interviewer was curious whether all of this bustle over Brazil’s newfound prominence would automatically translate into the emergence of the Portuguese language as among one of the world’s more widely spoken foreign tongues.

At the time, this seemed to pose an interesting question. If a distinction must be made when it comes to a foreign language, it would seem that it should be between a language that has a great number of native speakers using it, and one that also will have a great number of non-native speakers committed to learning it.

With around 230 million speakers worldwide, Portuguese is among the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. Brazilians, however, account for 190 million (83%) of these; and most of the remaining speakers are from historically Portuguese-speaking nations such as Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe. On the other hand, very few residents of non-Portuguese-related countries are regularly studying it as a second language. That means that although one can conclude that the Portuguese language has a large cohort of native speakers, it is not a language that many non-native speakers are rushing to learn. If so, why not, and what must occur for the situation to be altered?

Promoting Portuguese

The previous observation invites one to reflect over what promotes the study of a foreign language by non-native speakers. Of course, language serves as a crucial vehicle for exchange and professional development in myriad ways. Thus, in order to convince non-native speakers to invest their limited resources in the serious matter of learning a foreign language, the process must be seen as a valuable means to achieve a desired transaction, or a major transition: for example, it might involve some commercial exchange, or it could include other types of valuable transfers in the realm of trade, science or literature. That is, widespread usage of a language depends on the economic and political prominence of those speaking it and its lasting utility as the means to carry out the sought-after commercial activities.

Right now, Portuguese is rapidly achieving a strategic position in the world, largely as the result of Brazil and Angola’s booming energy business. Unlike other widely spoken languages like Mandarin Chinese, which have a huge number of native speakers but are severely limited to a specific geographic area, Portuguese is the official language of a number of countries spanning South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. However, the language’s widespread prevalence does not in itself imply that the language is an indispensable vehicle of exchange. If countries that speak the language have no other common bonds, the language will tend to atrophy, rather than expand as a channel for meaningful communication and trade. In order to encourage the use of Portuguese as a standard for international exchange, countries now using the language have taken steps to strengthen its uniformity of usage among their own circles.

In discussions that began in the early 1980’s, an intergovernmental organization to encourage a sense of community among Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP in Portuguese) was discussed, and by 1996 such a body was finally founded. Since then, chiefs of state and ministers from the Portuguese-speaking bloc have been meeting regularly in order to harmonize efforts to reinforce their bonds. Among the most important of such actions was the increasing uniformity of Portuguese language usage, which finally was regularized in early 2009 and which is now being ratified by all Portuguese-speaking governments.

That means that today, all such countries use the same orthography, and the aim is to work over 98% of the vocabulary in coming years. This action is expected to facilitate, among all of the Portuguese-speaking countries, the preparation of contracts and other instruments, with the goal being to improve commercial exchange, expedite trade and facilitate the sharing of scientific initiatives, as well as dealing with intellectual property rights.

By creating a unified Portuguese language that is spoken in all these countries and that is intended to facilitate a range of interactions among Portuguese-speaking countries, the CPLP is positioning itself as a utilitarian bloc to be tapped into. But given that no transcending impulse exists that would make a language, like Portuguese, attract a radical increase in the number of non-native speakers, what sort of development factor would have to be operative to provide the necessary impetus for Portuguese-usage to take off? The answer will be found in Brazil’s booming energy field.

Portuguese and Energy

The Portuguese-speaking bloc is fast becoming of especial concern to the rest of the world due to the discoveries now being made in the energy sector. Brazil is soaring towards a leading position as a major world energy exporter of oil and natural gas as a result of the major deposits being discovered in its offshore waters. Angola is another Portuguese-speaking, oil-rich country, while Mozambique’s Maputo port is southern Africa’s nearest port capable of servicing the mega oil tankers now involved in the rapidly developing trade between Africa and Asia, and is the closest deep water port to Johannesburg, a privileged location for such mega oil tankers. Furthermore, Brazil’s President Lula de Silva already has voiced interest in sharing Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol technology with other developing countries, in order to ultimately increase the global supply of the fuel and assist these developing countries on their own journey to economic growth. Thus, it may be the case that several of these Portuguese-speaking countries would use their existing favored ties with Brazil to thrive as they follow in its ethanol-production footsteps.

If the above optimistic scenario fully materializes, and some of the Portuguese-speaking countries become a leading component of the energy sector, it may be that the Portuguese-language will attract a surge of non-native speakers as other countries’ energy sectors also prosper as they collectively become an important factor in global trade not only in energy, but manufacturing and commodities as well. In fact, signs of this generalized prospect already began to appear in 2007 when Equatorial Guinea, which uses a Creole language with Portuguese traces, adopted Portuguese as one if its official languages and Mauritius may soon follow in its wake. This interest in the Portuguese language is, in part, due to the opportunities for professional enhancement that learning the language is likely to offer. This process could be jump-started by the Portuguese bloc’s energy sector and then gain a life of its own as more and more non-native speakers elsewhere elect to study the language in order to take advantage of the commercial and personal opportunities offered by the Brazil-led economy.

To Our Readers:

This press release was inspired by an interview that COHA’s Research Fellow Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida had with Voice of America on December 15th, 2009. To hear the interview please click here.