Pandaya, Dili – There is a tragicomedy taking place in the East Timor's elementary schools. It revolves around the teachers' low proficiency of the Portuguese language, which the government has decided to use as the official language of instruction for grades one to three.
The problem is that very few teachers have a reasonable mastery of the language of the former colonial master. They speak their mother tongue, Tetum (also spelled Tetun), and Bahasa Indonesia, being products of the Indonesian educational system.
So now they must teach their pupils in broken Portuguese, because it is required by the constitution.
And the students? They speak the same languages as their teachers. Generally, they can address their teachers with a few standard phrases in Portuguese, such as "good morning". The teachers say their pupils have only very basic reading and writing skills in Portuguese.
"Yeah, it is funny but we have no other choice because [teaching in Portuguese] has been made obligatory by the government," said Anacleto da Costa, a teacher at the St. Yosef Catholic school, which is located across from the Indonesian military cemetery in Dili.
The government began reintroducing Portuguese in grade one of elementary schools three years ago, when the former Indonesian province voted to secede from the Republic. This academic year, the mandatory Portuguese affects grades one to three. For grades four through university, Tetum and Indonesian will continue to be the languages of instruction.
For the younger people, Portuguese is the language of the older generations, who still have strong cultural and emotional ties with Portugal and its former colonies such as Mozambique, Angola and Guinea. Powerful figures from this circle continue to dominate the decision-making process in Timor's Parliament and government bureaucracy.
Portuguese used to be widely used by educated Timorese until Indonesia annexed the territory in 1976 and imposed its language and educational system.
The choice of Portuguese as one of the two national languages shows the determination of East Timor's leaders to align the country with Portuguese-speaking countries.
Article 13 of East Timor's constitution stipulates that while the official languages are Tetum and Portuguese, local dialects will be "nurtured and developed". Indonesian and English are mentioned in Article 159 as "working languages that may be used in the government along with the official languages as long as they are still deemed necessary".
The use of Portuguese as one of the country's official languages, as mandated by the constitution, has drawn strong criticism from younger East Timorese, who prefer Indonesian or English if a foreign language must be adopted.
"It is to accommodate the ego of the 'gray' generation," said Eduardo, a university student who said he knew nothing about Portuguese. "Indonesian or English would be a better choice. Indonesian is widely spoken and English is the world's official language."
Interest in English has risen along with the presence of a large number of international staff members of the United Nations and non-governmental activists from English-speaking countries. Besides, the country has been sending its best and brightest students to study in countries like the US and Australia.
An official household survey conducted in 2001 by the Planning Commission shows that Portuguese is used by only 5 percent of the population, slightly higher than the 2 percent who use English. Tetum is used by 82 percent of the population and Indonesian by 43 percent.
Supporters of Portuguese as an official language of the nation argue that the language is necessary to maintain the Portuguese cultural values that became deeply rooted in East Timor after 450 years of colonization.
"Tetum is no longer adequate to express ideas in this era of fast developing science and technology, so over the course of time it has come to include Portuguese words," said lawmaker Jacob Xavier, a Portuguese-educated politician who chairs Partido Do Povo de Timor (Timor People's Party).
Even so, the cash-strapped East Timor government has yet to upgrade its teachers' Portuguese skills to fulfill its dream of having a Portuguese-speaking population.
Minister of Education, Youth and Sports Armindo Maia said that although the Portuguese language issue created some controversy in the beginning, people had begun to accept it.
High on the ministry's agenda is to import Portuguese-language textbooks and to send more teachers to Portugal to learn the language.
But the government's plan has failed to impress skeptics like Anacleto da Costa, who claims to have attended countless Portuguese courses and received heaps of certificates, but still finds the language too difficult to comprehend.
He said: "I am skeptical that the Portuguese language campaign will go anywhere in the foreseeable future, because the pupils live in communities that speak Tetum and Indonesian. Their environment doesn't support the use of Portuguese for communicating in real life."