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The mother tongue

Radio Australia - July 9, 2004

The various languages of East Timor speak of the history of the place, but in the present they are the topic of fierce debate.

The country's official language is Portuguese, its national language is Tetum, but 15 other local dialects are spoken. Questions are now being raised about what language or languages children are being taught at school. What happens to those who grew up under Indonesian rule speaking Bahasa, who have never had a chance to learn Portuguese? And where does English fit in?

In the first of a two part series, Sian Prior reports on the history and politics of language in the fledgling nation.

Sitting in a cafe in Dili, I am surrounded by different languages.

At a nearby table, three women are speaking Portuguese, at another, a couple of men converse in English.

Young boys hang around the entrance, trying to sell phone cards and chatting among themselves in the dominant local language of Tetum.

And taxis drive past, their radios blaring with pop songs in Bahasa Indonesia.

It's an aural snapshot of the complex situation facing this fledgling nation two years after it was formally declared the Independent Republic of East Timor.

Official languages

Only two languages have official status in East Timor. Portuguese, the language of the former colonial rulers of East Timor, was made the official language after independence.

Tetum has dual status as an official language and the national language, a decision that few Timorese would disagree with.

But debate continues about the wisdom of the decision to give Portuguese its official status.

It's a debate which, if not handled with great care, could lead to a widening gap between different generations of Timorese in coming decades.

A linguistic juggling act

The young boys trying to sell phone cards use English, and chances are they have to use at least three other languages each day. At home, they probably speak Tetum and/or another one of East Timor's 15 native dialects. At school they could be having classes in either Tetum, Portuguese or Bahasa Indonesia, or a mix of all three.

Their older siblings probably speak Bahasa Indonesia quite well, having been educated in that language under a quarter century of Indonesian occupation.

And the boys will be picking up their English wherever they can, from travellers or maybe in classes outside of school hours.

The language of money

English is a useful language to have if you're trying to earn a living in Dili. It's been that way ever since 1999 when the United Nations stepped in to stem the violence that accompanied the Indonesian withdrawal from Timor and to help rebuild the devastated country.

Sister Rita Hayes is an Australian nun with a background in education who first came to East Timor to teach English in the year 2000.

Her early classes proved popular with the many young people in the city who had nothing to do, due to the lack of employment and schooling.

"Initially we had massive classes, we'd be taking a class inside some old, almost demolished building, and they'd all be looking in from outside, they'd be crowding in the doors, crowding in the windows," Sister Rita says.

"We'd be saying something – because we had no material resources – and they'd be repeating it through the windows, through the doors, sitting on the floor," she says.

"But it didn't worry them, no, they just wanted to learn."

In the classroom

Sister Rita now lives and works in a mountain village in the sub-district of Railaco, 75 kilometres south of Dili, where she has organised a Tetum literacy program.

She says the language mix in the education system is complicated.

About 65 per cent of the people are illiterate – they speak Tetum as their first language but cannot read or write it, while others have been educated in Bahasa Indonesia, and can read and write in that language.

Because Portuguese has been introduced as the official language, education is now in Portuguese from Grade 1 to 3, but at present from Grade 4 through secondary and tertiary they still have to teach in Indonesian, because that's what the students understand.

"The teachers are all having to learn Portuguese, so they're learning Portuguese, they're doing some teaching in Portuguese, and that's the way it's going," Sister Rita says. A frustrated generation

In Dili, there's growing frustration among some young people who were educated in Bahasa Indonesia.

The members of the local Timorese rock band, Bibi Bulak, or Crazy Goat, all young men in their late teens and early 20s, have recorded a song in Tetum called "Hau La Hatene Portugersh", which means "I don't speak Portuguese".

"I can dance, I can sleep, I can fish", they sing, "but I don't know how to speak Portuguese".

The song expresses the frustration of a generation educated under Indonesian rule in Bahasa Indonesia, many of whom now feel like they're being excluded from job opportunities because they don't speak Portuguese.

'International communication'

Abel Belo da Silva is aged in his 20s and has more education that most Timorese.

He went to university in Indonesia, and he speaks four languages: Tetum, Macassai, which is the dialect of his local area, Bahasa Indonesia and English, which he studied in secondary school.

Mr Delo da Silva says the most useful language to him now in an independent East Timor is English.

"Because so many foreigners, so many overseas people come to East Timor from NGOs, from UN people, tourists, sometimes, and most of the people that are coming from overseas, they are speaking English," he says.

"It is like an international communication. So this is really most useful," he says.

Mr Delo da Silva says many young people are not happy that Portuguese is the official language.

"It's not because we hate Portuguese people, but Portuguese language is not really practical in today's world in terms of their communication on business, international relations," he says.

"Today we can see why people are speaking English for communication and business."

The national identity

However, those in charge of the country believe Portuguese is the best language to define the East Timorese identity.

Agio Pereira is chief of staff for President Xanana Gusmao.

He says Portuguese was chosen as the official language because, after Tetum, it is the language that the current political leadership is most comfortable with.

Mr Pereira says the importance of the Portuguese language to Timorese national identity was consolidated during the years of resistance to Indonesian rule, when pro-independence rebels were fighting in the jungles, and members of the Timorese diaspora were arguing the case for independence in international fora.

"Portuguese was always used in the jungle. If you look at many official documents of the resistance, all in Portuguese," Mr Pereira says.

"They need to communicate with the UN, they need to communicate directly with institutions in Portugal, it was always Portuguese," he says.

"And the way our leaders express our struggle within the context of human rights, illegal occupation, juridical tone, was always Portuguese.

"We were in a soul-searching phase looking for our own identity, and Portuguese became ours. It is no longer the colonialist language, it became ours, we took it as our language as well and it evolved with us. "Now we have the opportunity to develop it further."