APSN Banner

Opinion: A language challenge for Timorese schools

International Herald Tribune - May 24, 2002

Michael Richardson, Uotolari – Paradoxically, the neat figure of the Reverend Damianus Wagur seated behind a school desk in his office epitomizes the complexity of East Timor's recent history. Wagur, a missionary teacher from Flores, a predominantly Christian island of Indonesia, directs the senior high school in this town about 250 kilometers southeast of Dili. He is one of the last good vestiges of 24 years of Indonesian rule of East Timor until 1999 as he tries to raise educational standards in difficult circumstances.

"We have 200 students studying in what was formerly an elementary school," he said the other day. "The working conditions are not good and many of the 15 Timorese teachers lack proper professional qualifications."

The education system of East Timor, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, is the legacy of foreign control – but by two colonial powers that had very different priorities. For most of the more than 400 years that Portugal was in charge, it showed little interest in mass education. Nearly all the schools and other places of learning that existed were run by the Catholic Church. When Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor in 1975, the literacy rate was only around 5 percent.

By building roads, bridges, schools and village health clinics Indonesia sought to show itself as a benevolent power. Jakarta saw universal primary education as an important part of the process of "Indonesianizing" the East Timorese. Use of Portuguese in schools was forbidden.

East Timorese who wanted to deal with the administration had to do so in the Indonesian language. Because of the frequent brutality that accompanied its rule, Indonesia failed to win the hearts and minds of many local people. But it did succeed in raising literacy levels and educational standards. By 1999, the final year of Indonesian control, the adult literacy rate in East Timor was 50 percent for men and 34 percent for women.

The Indonesian withdrawal included the burning and destruction of many schools by the military and its Timorese militia allies. Many were rebuilt or restored to basic operating level during the two and half years of UN administration that ended at midnight Sunday.

More than 240,000 primary and secondary students headed back to the classroom in October 2001, at the start of the new school year. Nearly eight out of ten children of primary school age are enrolled. But there is another complication. East Timor's new leaders have decided that Portuguese as well as Tetum, the most widely spoken of the country's 15 or so indigenous languages, will be the two official languages. They have relegated Indonesian to the status of a "working" language.

The leadership did so partly because of an emotional attachment to Portuguese, which they used during the resistance to Indonesian rule. They also feel indebted to Portugal and Portuguese-speaking countries such as Brazil, Mozambique and Angola for supporting the independence struggle.

But only about 5 percent of East Timorese speak Portuguese, compared with an estimated 63 percent who speak Indonesian and 91 percent who speak Tetum. The latter needs development, including a much enlarged vocabulary and improved grammatical structure, before it can become a really expressive national language. That will take at least a decade.

In education, the policy is to introduce Portuguese progressively as the language of instruction, starting in primary grades one and two in the current school year, while teaching Portuguese as a second language in higher grades. The aim is to extend instruction in Portuguese throughout the school system over the next 13 years.

Wagur points to just one of many problems facing East Timor educators when he notes out that only one of the 15 teachers at school can speak, read and write Portuguese. They are being assisted by a teacher from Portugal, one of about 140 on loan from that country under an educational and language aid program.

Still, a considerable number of young East Timorese are unhappy with the decision to use Portuguese, saying that it is discriminatory and undermines their employment prospects. "Some of my students ask: Why should we have to learn this colonial language?" Wagur said.