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Language policy in East Timor: The quest for cultural democracy

The Nation - October 21, 2013

Gerald W. Fry – The discussion of language policy in East Timor begins with the statement of two key related underlying principles: cultural democracy and the right to begin basic studies in an individual's mother tongue.

Latino scholars Manuel Ramrez III and Alfredo Castaeda first introduced the importance of cultural democracy to recognise an individual's rights to remain identified with the culture and language of their cultural group.

With respect to education in the mother tongue, Unesco has established a special website related to this approach. Unesco has encouraged mother-tongue education in early childhood and primary education since 1953.

Research evidence, from many settings around the world – including northern Thailand – indicates that when children start school in their mother tongue, they are more likely to like school and not to drop out – and to learn much more effectively. Later they can transition to standard Thai, for example, or in the case of East Timor, to Portuguese.

In East Timor, there is definitely no universal agreement that students should start off in the official language of Tetum.

What impresses me most about East Timor is its multilingual landscape and the extent to which the Timorese are polyglots. Many Timorese speak two or more languages. Signage is linguistically diverse and signs are common in Tetum, Portuguese, English, and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). Official signs are primarily in Portuguese and/or Tetum, the two official languages of East Timor.

Data from the 2010 national census clearly indicates the linguistic diversity of East Timor. There are 32 local indigenous languages, six of which are considered endangered. Based on this census, the most commonly spoken mother tongues are Tetum Praca, 36.6 per cent and Mambai, 12.5 per cent. It is estimated that 59 per cent know Indonesian, 31.4 per cent, English, and 23.5 percent, Portuguese. English and Indonesian are considered working languages.

It is important to note that there are two varieties of Tetum (from the Austronesian language family): Tetum Praca or Tetum-Dili (which is heavily influenced by Portuguese) and Tetum-Terik, a prestigious regional variety primarily spoken in the south and southwestern regions of East Timor.

Danielle Boon did a fascinating study of East Timor's adult literacy programme, based on the Cuban model, Yo Si Puedo. Though the formal curriculum is in Tetum, she found that multiple languages were being used in the classroom for diverse purposes.

A new language of instruction policy has recently been drafted. A key element is that the mother tongue will be the focus of the early years of schooling. It is currently in a pilot stage.

The goal is certainly culturally democratic, emphasising "preserving cultural and linguistic diversity as a means to achieving national unity, peace, and equitable development (National Education Commission, 2011).

In a cultural democratic environment, Timorese parents and students have had freedom to choose between different language tracks such as their mother tongue, then Portuguese; Tetum, then Portuguese; Tetum, then English... Many Timorese have chosen Portuguese and rejected mother-tongue instruction.

Many younger Timorese, especially those in Dili, see English as having great social capital with respect to job opportunities. During the first decade of this century, 15 UN agencies and 122 international NGOs were active in East Timor. Many of these organisations use English as their working language. Others, such as the large number who go to Indonesia, see Indonesian as having valuable social capital.

The Timorese freedom to choose the language of instruction (won through their fight for independence) is consistent with Amartya Sen's (Nobel laureate) concept of "development as freedom" and Robert Chamber's (professor at Sussex University) emphasis on participatory development.

Having curricular materials in multiple languages is, of course, more costly, but East Timor probably can afford this, given an economy turbo-charged with oil and gas revenues, and development funds from diverse donors.

Ken Westmoreland, a Portugusese and Tetum translator, has done a recent book on East Timor entitled, "A Pretty Unfair Place: East Timor Ten Years after Self-Determination (2009)". He has an in-depth understanding of the cultural and linguistic landscape of East Timor.

Critics of the policy of having Portuguese as an official language fail to appreciate the value of learning Portuguese. First, Portuguese is a link to the relatively large Lusophone community of Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe. Also, Portuguese is used in Goa and Macau. Second, it is relatively easy to transition from Portuguese to Spanish, a language spoken in a large number of countries and clearly a world language. Third, important abstract words in Portuguese, Spanish, and English are often similar but with different pronunciations. Thus, Portuguese can be a valuable window to English.