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A Babel for East Timor as language shifts to Portuguese

International Herald Tribune - July 23, 2007

Dili – The rumble of a generator and the whir of ceiling fans muffled the quiet words of a judge as he questioned a witness in a murder trial one recent hot, still afternoon.

But even if they could have heard him, most of the people sprinkled through the little courtroom – including the defendant and the witnesses – could not have understood what he was saying.

The judge was speaking in Portuguese, the newly designated language of the courts, the schools and the government – a language that most people in East Timor cannot speak.

The most widely spoken languages in this former Portuguese colony are Tetum, the dominant local language, and Indonesian, the language of East Timor's giant neighbor.

For a quarter of a century, Portuguese had been a dying tongue, spoken only by an older generation. It was banned after Indonesia annexed the territory in 1975 and imposed its own language.

In a disorienting reverse, a new Constitution reimposed Portuguese after East Timor became an independent country in 2002. The marginalized became mainstream again and the mainstream was marginalized.

Linguistic convenience was sacrificed to politics and sentiment. In a nation that had never governed itself and had few cultural symbols to unite it, this language of resistance to the Indonesian occupiers was an emblem – particularly to the older generation – of freedom and national identity.

The choice has brought a tangle of complications, disenfranchising a generation of Indonesian speakers and introducing a new language barrier to the country's many other problems.

Along with a struggle to provide health care, education, government services, jobs and even food for its people, this destitute nation is now on a crash course to learn its own language, importing scores of teachers from Portugal to help.

"I have finished two levels of Portuguese, but I still don't speak it well, just basic Portuguese," said Zacharias da Costa, 36, a lecturer in conflict management at National University of East Timor.

Within five years, according to the government's plan, he will be required to teach all his courses in Portuguese, a language that is hardly heard on the campus here.

An official bulletin board at its entrance carries 14 notices from teachers. Eight are written in Tetum, four in Indonesian and two in English. None are in Portuguese.

For all its awkwardness, East Timor's experience is not uncommon, Robert Kaplan, a senior co-editor of the journal Current Issues in Language Planning, said in an interview by telephone.

The imposition of new national languages happens when countries are colonized, and it happens when they decolonize, he said. And sometimes, as in East Timor, it happens once more when they decolonize again.

East Timor's language problems are those of many countries that decree a language shift – complicating the daily business of the nation and cutting off its people from their history and literature, written in what will one day become an alien language.

In Azerbaijan, for example, a former Soviet republic that is now fully independent, a simple change in alphabet, from Cyrillic to Roman, has created a new class of illiterates.

East Timor's courts are among the hardest-hit institutions. Translations back and forth among Portuguese, Tetum and Indonesian produce a game of telephone in which testimony is often distorted, outside monitors say.

During a just-completed parliamentary election, news conferences were held in four languages, sometimes producing somewhat different versions of the news.

At the newspaper Timor Post, which is printed in English, reporters said they could not read government news releases in Portuguese, so they ignored them.

The reported number of Portuguese speakers in East Timor varies widely, perhaps because of different methods used in surveys and perhaps because of the effects of the current language training programs.

The United Nations reported in 2002 that only 5 percent of the population of 800,000 spoke Portuguese. In the 2004 census, 36 percent said they had "a capability in Portuguese," said Kerry Taylor-Leech, a linguist at Griffith University in Australia, who has written about the languages of East Timor.

"Since the 1990s you'll see that a language shift has taken place," she said. "The changes from what I see are taking place quite rapidly."

According to the census, 85 percent claimed a capability in Tetum, 58 percent in Indonesian and 21 percent in English.

The new Constitution names Portuguese and Tetum as the country's two official languages, but Tetum is seen as thin and undeveloped, and most of the nation's official business is conducted in Portuguese.