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East Timor's linguistic legacy

Radio Australia - July 12, 2004

Two years after independence, the people of East Timor are trying to sort out the muddle of languages that is a legacy of the country's complicated history and politics. There are indigenous languages as well as the languages of the colonisers, the occupiers and the peacekeepers: Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia and English.

Which of these languages any particular East Timorese person speaks, reads and writes depends a lot on which particular period of this history he or she grew up in and was educated in.

In the second of a two part series, Sian Prior reports on what this linguistic legacy means for the people of East Timor today.

It's easy to get confused when trying to get a sense of the linguistic make-up of East Timor.

The country's official language is Portuguese, its national language is Tetum – spoken by the largest number of Timroese – but 15 other local dialects are also spoken.

Add to that an older generation who were mostly educated in Portuguese under colonial rule, and a younger generation who were taught Bahasa Indonesia during almost 25 years of Indonesian occupation.

Then there are those who have spent the last four years urgently trying to learn English, to take advantage of work opportunities made possible by the large number of English speaking internationals living and working in Timor.

A difficult transition

When Timor gained its independence after a quarter century of political struggle, the government decided that there would be two official languages in Timor: Portuguese and Tetum. Bahasa Indonesia, which had been the language of the schoolroom, was replaced with Portuguese.

An adviser in East Timor's Ministry of Education, Victoria Markwick-Smith, says the transition in schools from Bahasa Indonesia to Portuguese has been difficult.

"In many schools in East Timor a lot of teachers don't speak Portuguese and hence have to use the vernacular, the mother tongue of the students, or Tetum, or get translators," Ms Markwick-Smith says.

"The curriculum is still the old Indonesian curriculum and there is quite a confusion," she says.

Lost in translation

Ms Marwick-Smith says teachers have to translate what is in Bahasa Indonesia into the students' most commonly spoken language.

"[The preferred language] may be Tetum; then they're trying to present it to the children in – depending on the area where the children are – let's take the eastern part of East Timor, Los Palos and Tutalau, where the children's mother tongues are Fataluku and not Tetum, and most speakers don't know Tetum there," she says.

In practical terms in some classrooms, teachers and students are having to negotiate with potentially four different languages.

Ms Markwick-Smith says in these cases, the teacher often resorts to Bahasa Indonesia because it is widely understood.

She says English is also extremely popular, and the cry for English is big from students keen to access a global world.

The Portuguese legacy

Choosing Portuguese as the official language has been a controversial decision, in part because of that generational divide between Portuguese and Bahasa speakers.

President Xanana Gusmao was a revered leader of the Timorese resistance movement, and one of those who supported the decision to make Portuguese the official language when independence was finally achieved.

He grew up speaking four different languages: Tetum, two other Timorese dialects and Portuguese, which he learnt at school under Portuguese colonial rule.

He later learnt Bahasa Indonesia while he was in prison in Jakarta, and has since also learnt English. He argues that the choice of Portuguese is about preserving Timorese identity.

He says East Timor's history, religion and culture derives from the Portuguese presence, and says if the country adopts Bahasa "we will lose ourselves in the future".

"If we adopt English we say we are going to be part of the Commonwealth, but we are not.

A place for Bahasa Indonesia

The president's wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, is an Australian who spent many years living and working in Indonesia, supporting the Timorese resistance movement.

She now runs the Alola Foundation, which raises funds for improving maternal and child health, education and economic empowerment for the Timorese people.

Ms Sword Gusmao supports the government's language policies, but in practical terms, she believes Bahasa Indonesia will continue to have a role in Timor. "I think personally Bahasa Indonesia is also very important – it's the language that the younger generation feel most comfortable communicating in, certainly in written form if not in spoken form, and it's still very much the language of official communications in spite of the decision to use Portuguese as the official language," she says.

Bahasa's future

Is it inevitable, given that Bahasa Indonesia no longer has any kind of official status, that it will eventually fade away?

"I think it will certainly persist for the next 10 to 20 years without any significant nurturing, just because it's a language that the younger generation have been educated in," Ms Sword Gusmao says.

"Those that have studied in Indonesia obviously feel a strong association with the language and with Indonesian culture and society," she says.

"But I think beyond that point there will have to be a deliberate decision to maintain it as an important language obviously of commerce and trade.

"It's important in terms of the relationship with Indonesia that the language be maintained and encouraged as well.

"I think there are some strong links there, and incredibly the Timorese people have managed to distinguish between the Indonesian military and the Indonesian people and there are no hard feelings really."

Equity issues

The president's chief of staff, Agio Pereira, agrees with President Gusmao that retaining the Portuguese language is important to preserving Timorese national identity.

But he is sympathetic to those young Timorese people who resent the imposition of an official language that many of them have never had the opportunity to learn, and who fear being shut out of job opportunities as a result.

"I think we have to have a clear policy of access and equity, and maybe we can learn a lot from Australia in that sense, because of multicultural strategies adopted in Australia," Mr Pereira says.

"We need to have some access equity strategies taking into account the fact that there are social groups that coincide with age groups that really will be disenfranchised badly if you require that Portuguese is the language as a prerequisite to occupy certain jobs," he says.

"You only have to look at the parliament to understand this phenomenon.

"Most parliamentarians don't speak or write Portuguese, most of the laws are in Portuguese and they keep complaining a lot, wanting translation into Indonesian or Tetum.

"It doesn't mean that it will make them understand the laws better, but at least it makes them feel that they also have a window of opportunity to learn through the language that they can express better."