Timor Leste is proposing to amend its education law to make the Portuguese language mandatory in schools across the Catholic-majority country.
Armindo Maia, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports said on Jan. 4 that he would amend the Basic Education Law of 2008 as most schools in the country do not make use of the European language adopted alongside the native Tetun as a national language.
"We will change the law related to education to force students and teachers to use Portuguese during lessons," he said as reported by the Timor Post.
"Portuguese is the official language," Maia declared making it clear that teachers and students must make it the medium of knowledge across the country.
The reluctance to use Portuguese poses serious problems in improving the quality of education, the minister said while adding that the proposed amendment will be submitted to the Council of Ministers "in the near future."
Timor Leste is familiar with the European language as the nation was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century. But only a small percentage of people spoke the language when it became the world's newest country in 2002.
Two decades after independence, the former colony is still struggling to enforce the language on its 1.49 million citizens. "At present, 80 percent of students and teachers do not use Portuguese in class," Maia said.
In 2020, the government initiated cooperation with Portugal to implement the PRO-Portuguese Project meant to train its teachers in the adopted language.
To encourage the use of Portuguese, some schools started imposing a fine on students who do not communicate in the language.
Franciscan Brother Roberto Fernandez, a teacher at St. Francis Assisi School in Fatuberliu, said he supports the use of Portuguese but teachers in remote areas needed assistance to further the effort.
His school was located in the Manufahi district, about 190 kilometers south of Dili, and not all teachers there were fluent in Portuguese.
"Programs carried out by the government to provide assistance for teachers do not reach many such areas," he said.
Fernandez and his fellow teachers at the school were familiar with the Indonesian language as they studied in Jakarta.
"We need a lot of time to adjust to Portuguese. This is still a challenge for us here," he said.
Fernandez said this peculiar language situation was affecting the quality of the teaching and learning process in the classroom.
"Maybe it would take decades more for all schools to fully adopt the Portuguese language," he added.
Hiron Goncalves, a law student at the National University of Timor-Leste, said they use Portuguese in the classroom "but it is more because of force."
"It is the formal language we use in class, while once out we use Tetum and Indonesian," she told UCA News.
The Indonesian language is still popular in the half-island nation as people watch a lot of Indonesian soap operas on television, she added.
The government remains adamant about making Portuguese a key element in education hoping for potential economic benefits from other Portuguese-speaking countries.