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In East Timor, language creates a headache

Agence France Presse - July 11, 2007

Sebastien Blanc, Dili – With a new president and parliament, East Timor is poised for reconciliation after more than a year of simmering political tension. But one schism remains: language.

In the extreme minority are the very few East Timorese who speak Portuguese, despite the more than four centuries that Lisbon had a presence in the tiny Asian nation of about one million people.

Yet Portuguese, along with the local vernacular Tetum, is one of East Timor's two official languages. Tetum is spoken by about 80 percent of the population, along with 16 local dialects.

While sufficient for everyday conversation, Tetum does not possess the rich vocabulary required to express sophisticated concepts and is not much use, for instance, in teaching a biology course or writing a judicial decision.

Geographically, the most widely used language is that of another former occupier, Indonesia. Tetum is not spoken in some remote pockets like Los Palos in the country's east.

"Indonesian – or bahasa Melayu – is still the single most widely spoken language, the language of higher education and the working language of bureaucracy," said Australian academic and East Timor expert Damien Kingsbury. "It is politically divisive, as is Portuguese, but it has the advantage of already being in place."

Jakarta's 24-year rule over East Timor began in 1975 shortly after Portugal's withdrawal and was marked by atrocities and mistrust, saw the complete prohibition of the teaching of Portuguese and its use in the media.

"But the language was never fully expelled, thanks to the resistance," said Benjamin de Araujo E Corte-Real, linguist and vice chancellor of the national university, referring to East Timor's guerrilla campaign against Indonesia's occupation.

Portuguese also survived thanks to the Catholic church, which continued to hold masses in the language.

Corte-Real disputes a 2001 World Bank study which found that only five percent of East Timorese could speak Portuguese. No formal language census has ever been carried out.

According to the academic, the population has a "predisposition toward Portuguese," and the survey neglected to take into account that when speaking Tetum, people are unconsciously using a great deal of Portuguese. About 40 percent of Tetum's vocabulary is estimated to come from the Romance language.

He also emphasises that Portuguese was chosen as an official language "as part (of) our self-affirmation," noting that use of the language sets East Timor well apart from neighbouring Indonesia and Australia.

Newly elected president, Nobel peace prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, is a polyglot diplomat, juggling English, Portuguese, French and Tetum with ease.

His recent speeches in Indonesian, a language he is yet to master, have elicited smiles among his audience, but the presidential effort testifies to the importance that, historical animosities aside, Indonesian still carries.

East Timorese radio and television are flooded with Indonesian programmes, the nation's youth know more about Indonesian rock bands than Portugal's fado singers, and students dream about studying in Indonesia.

Those against the use of Portuguese say it has never been essential in the nation and cannot help develop it, citing as examples other Portuguese-speaking nations that are located far away and are typically poor.

They say it is an injustice that a young East Timorese must master the language in order to enter the civil service, which already has a poorly skilled pool of people to select candidates from. And once in the service, Indonesian tends to be used on a day-to-day basis.

Many young people, as well, did not understand how a government directed by a Portuguese-speaking elite from abroad – in particular Mozambique – managed to be elected in 2001, a year ahead of formal independence.

Defenders of Portuguese sometimes accuse the United Nations and other international organisations of favouring the recruitment of English-speaking rather than Portuguese-speaking Timorese.

English, which along with Indonesian was declared a "working language" of East Timor upon independence, is preferred by many young people.

"Most adolescents want to learn English as it's the language of development and jobs. If you want to get ahead in Timor, English is the ticket," said Andrea Bartoli, from the Centre for International Conflict Resolution at New York's Columbia University.

The linguistic diversity throws up some quirks. During the first presidential poll, the national election commission's spokesman was a Catholic priest who announced results that varied depending on whether he was speaking in Tetum, English, Portuguese or Indonesian – leaving journalists scratching their heads.

Meanwhile the United Nations christened its compound in the capital Dili, "Obrigado Barracks," a successful pun on "obrigadu barak" which in Tetum means "thank you very much."