With help from former colonies, Portuguese maintains its relevance

By Noah Lenstra

Upon entering Professor Ana C. Thome-Williams’ office on the fourth floor of the Foreign Language Building, one sees a map of the world with the words “Portuguese Spoken Here” at the top. On the map, places such as Brazil, Portugal and Angola are highlighted, along with the University.

Thome-Williams, a Portuguese professor, will speak this afternoon at 3:30 in room G13 of the FLB. Her speech, entitled “Portuguese Language in Context: Past, Present, and Future,” will inform anyone interested in the language, which is the seventh most spoken language on the planet, ahead of German, French and Italian.

“There are so many people speaking Portuguese around the world,” Thome-Williams said. “We have more than 200 million native speakers and more who speak Portuguese as a second language, such as the thousands of immigrants that live in America.”

The spread of Portuguese around the world began with Portugal. One of the first imperial nations, Portugal began colonizing large parts of the Americas, Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century.

“I am a native speaker of Portuguese in Brazil. And why? Because Brazil was colonized by Portugal,” Thome-Williams said.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

There are also Portuguese speakers in the African nations of Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe, and in the Asian nation of East Timor. In reality, the majority of Portuguese speakers do not live in Portugal. Thome-Williams estimates that 90 percent of Portuguese speakers reside in Brazil.

All of the Portuguese-speaking nations are connected through the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, an international organization designed so that “one country can benefit another,” Thome-Williams said.

Portuguese is one of the official languages of the European Union and is required in high schools in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay because of a trade federation, illustrating the importance of Portuguese in the world.

“Everyone who is interested in doing research in these countries needs to know Portuguese,” Thome-Williams said.

In her talk, Williams will present a number of clips of Portuguese speakers around the world, including an American researching biodiversity in Mozambique.

“If he couldn’t speak Portuguese, he could never do his work there,” she said.

Students from Thome-Williams’ introductory Portuguese class will also present a short skit illustrating the importance of the language around the world.

The main interest for learning Portuguese comes from an interest in Brazil. The United States is Brazil’s largest economic partner, and Brazilians are the second largest immigrant group to the United States.

“The Portuguese speaking community is growing fast,” Thome-Williams said.

Brazil is also at the forefront of technological development.

“Brazil has been developing great technologies … Brazil developed the pro-alcohol technology, the first country that found a solution to the problem with gasoline,” she said.

As an example of Brazil’s importance in the United States, the agricultural school has been taking students to Brazil for years because Brazil exports meat, industrialized food and other foods.

“Brazil exports so much. Many colleges at the University are becoming aware of the gigantic opportunity they have with Brazil,” Thome-Williams said.

Due to this connection, she believes many Americans will have to develop close relationships with Brazil in the future.

“Brazil has the tenth largest economy in the world … People take Portuguese because they know it is a plus,” Thome-Williams said.

Brazil is also a large part of Latin America.

“Anyone interested in Latin American studies really needs to know more about Brazil and in consequence needs to know Portuguese,” she said.

“I started taking Portuguese because I worked in Brazil for a project,” said Enrique Hennings, a graduate student from Bolivia. “Brazil is very important in Latin America, so it is important to learn the language,”

Cultural diversity is also important in Brazil. It received immigrants from all over the world and has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

“All this gives Brazilians a different identity than the other Latin American countries, but we are still a Latino culture,” Thome-Williams said.

She hopes her talk will increase the awareness of the Portuguese section at the University, where she has taught for only a year. Professor Antonio Luciano Tosta, a professor of Brazilian literature, has been at the University for two months. Together, they hope to improve the visibility of Portuguese on campus.

“We want to turn English speakers into Portuguese speakers,” Thome-Williams said.

In the Portuguese courses offered at the University, “we try our best to bring the language into the context of the culture,” Tosta said.

To improve this context, beginning next year, the section will begin sponsoring study abroad to the Brazilian state of Bahia, specifically for language learning and increasing cultural awareness.

“Students are going to get language credit and we believe that those who go to Brazil will want to continue learning Portuguese,” Tosta said.

“If you have an eye to the future, you should consider knowing Portuguese … The biggest advantage of learning Portuguese is that you will have a tool that will take you places in the world,” Thome-Williams said.