Choosing languages in Timor-Leste

August 2016

Dili, Timor-Leste

We’ve finished Session A  trainings in all 8 districts of Phase II.  A SESIM team traveled to the final spot, Oecusse, Timor-Leste’s enclave down the north coast, locked in by Indonesia’s West Timor and the Savu Sea.  I wasn’t able to help with this one due to other work, but I heard stories from my colleagues about the training, including the interesting yet challenging language situation there.

In Oecusse, the main language is Baikeno, and many people are not fluent in Tetun, Timor-Leste’s lingua franca.  The teachers’ knowledge of Tetun may be passable, but their students will be facing a language barrier if lessons are delivered exclusively in Tetun. A few other locations in Timor-Leste face this same situation. More than 80% of the population here speaks Tetun, though it is native to only perhaps a quarter of the half-island nation.  This ensures continual questions and challenges about what language will be used when and for what.

IMG_5916 crop
This mathematics group has written its name in Portuguese and the information on the display in Tetun, but with certain terms spelled the Portuguese way. This is quite common, and not at all conducive to students mastering either language. Tetun has much simpler grammar and spelling rules, but most are yet to receive training on them. Portuguese has accents, circumflexes, tildes, and cedillas along with its formidable grammar.

Refer to the segment at the end here for a short primer on the fascinating and complex language situation here.  Timor-Leste has two official languages, Tetun and Portuguese.  Few people know Portuguese well, but the Ministry of Education has mandated it to be used at the junior-high level in all subjects. One result of this policy is the bizarre yet widespread situation of a teacher using a textbook written in Portuguese, writing on the board in Portuguese, but speaking in Tetun or their mother tongue so that the students have a better chance of understanding.

Adding to the complexity, in places like Oecusse, where neither Tetun nor Portuguese are securely known, teachers may revert to using Indonesian, the language in which everyone here under 50 or so was schooled in themselves.  It’s a modern language, quite useful for business with Timor-Leste’s closest neighbor, but is not to be officially used for instruction.

Mestra Mimi with Manufahe Municipal education leaders in front of the Tetun poster heralding our curriculum revision and training.  Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve misspelled the word ‘báziku,’ in the phrase ‘basic education.’ I hope I’m the only one who noticed.

All the materials SESIM has produced to date have been in Tetun.  Time and again teachers have thanked us specifically, both in person and on our evaluation forms, for writing materials and training in a language that they can understand.  But others criticize us for not using Portuguese. Their logic generally follows two main strands.  First, avoiding Portuguese holds Timorese back; Tetun is neither modern nor international.  Second, they point out that exams are given in Portuguese, so we’d better teach students in Portuguese or they’ll never pass.

The second point we respond to by saying yes, absolutely: once the students understand concepts, it is critical to also learn to communicate these concepts in Portuguese.  We have seen it more effective to go that route than to begin in Portuguese when students’ and teachers’ levels are so low. Of course, the entire set up assumes each science and mathematics teacher will shoulder the additional burden of teaching a foreign language.

On the first point we’ve seen people get quite ruffled.  During the training in Baucau we gave a presentation to a group of vice principals, showing them the new resources we’ve created to assist the teachers to teach with pratika. One older woman started visibly stewing and finally let out her rage in a short diatribe that I had trouble responding to.  “When will we learn Portuguese?!  Sixteen years we’ve been free now, but still we don’t prioritize teaching our kids Portuguese!  I come from a mountain district, and if my students don’t learn Portuguese, they’ll never get any opportunities, never be able to communicate with international people, never be able to leave our village!  When will we learn Portuguese?!”

Manual pratika
The cover of our teacher guide for junior-high science. There we’ve got ‘báziku’ right.

Her points were valid: all functionaries, including teachers, need to know Portuguese or they won’t keep their jobs.  And you won’t get far with Tetun outside of Timor, including on the internet.

But I’ve heard both of these points parried with counterpoints, often whispered off the record. Functionaries spend a lot of their time speaking and writing in Portuguese when the bulk of the population can’t follow it.  A good course in proper, standardized Tetun would probably serve them better in terms of practical communication.  And whereas Portuguese will get you a lot farther than Tetun on the interne or abroad, English would get you even farther.

In the end, the law is clear: junior-high will emphasize Portuguese. Teachers and trainers embrace this reality as best they can, and it’s an enormous challenge.  For example, many times teachers will listen to our Tetun explanation of a given phenomenon or concept, with Portuguese technical words added if necessary, and then ask for confirmation that some term in Portuguese is equivalent to some term they previously learned in Indonesian.  Essentially, they’re reviewing and re-learning concepts with a different language, and it’s hard!  SESIM teachers, who also went through university using Indonesian language, can help them with this translating job, and it’s quite comforting for the teachers.

When technical terms are needed in Tetun, they are taken from Portuguese. Here a teacher presents her drawing of the male reproductive system, labeled with Portuguese terms from the textbook.

If you’ve ever learned another language, and then tried to do a mathematics problem with your new words for numbers and operations, you’ll have felt a small fraction of the tongue-twister, brain-twister chore these teachers are up against.  Many times we’ll hear mathematics teachers talking through the problem to themselves in Indonesian, because that’s the language they’ve always done calculations in, and the Portuguese terms are just not yet solid in their brains.  (Tetun numbers are altogether different still, and quite a bit more cumbersome.  In general, people use them only for counting certain things:  animals, people, and a few other items.)

A board full of teachers’ questions in Tetun about the heart pratika, transcribed by Mestra Mimi. But look: she’s not capitalized the sentences! Here I’m quite sure I’m the only one who noticed. Like doing pratika, opportunities for writing one’s own thoughts or ideas do not exist in the vast majority of schools here. Many students first encounter the obligation to put their own ideas into writing when working on their thesis in the final year of college, and then dodge it deftly with plagiarism.

A teacher in the mathematics group questioned one of the names we had given to a geometric solid:  ‘Irregular quadrangular pyramid.’  Its base was a trapezoid.  Well, ‘quadrado’ means square in Portuguese, yet this base was far from a square, and furthermore, how can you call a trapezoid an ‘irregular square’?!  Shouldn’t this name be ‘Trapezoidal pyramid’ or ‘Quadrilateral pyramid?’  Several teachers got behind her and put up a great flurry.

It was poignant to see that perhaps not one in this group of teachers had ever before made a map of a pyramid with a trapezoid base, or cut it out and actually formed the solid.  To do so requires nothing beyond pencil, graph paper, and scissors, yet we led them through the process for the first time.  By experiencing this, they will have a much better handle on the characteristics of this and other geometric solids, how to measure their angles, and how to count their sides, faces, and vertices.  But what many of them were most desperately concerned about was proper terminology for it all.

Is that a ‘pirâmide quadrangular irregular‘ you’ve got there, Mestre?

We looked it up and confirmed that is indeed the Portuguese term for any pyramid with a four-sided base.  They were satisfied.  But the main thing I learned hit me like a brick from a tall pyramid:  when you are not confident of the content you’re teaching, you grab on to the terminology like a life line.  And when that terminology is wrinkled as it passes from one language to another, your whole competence is called into question.  The only way back to confidence and comfort is by gaining a thorough understanding of the concept, and how the new terminology describes it.

We dealt with this situation several times with the mathematics groups.  Why didn’t the word ‘gasta’ (spend) translate directly to a minus sign in that equation? Why is this expression called a ‘formula’ here and an ‘equation’ here?

It was tricky, because we often proclaim the truth that you can talk about science and mathematics in any language; that it’s a destructive colonial lie that technical knowledge requires a foreign language, or that science and mathematics originated in ‘developed’ countries.  We show them clearly the rich science and mathematics of their ancestors, visible in artisans’ work and other traditional knowledge, and note that no foreign language was needed to develop or communicate those concepts.

On the desks you can see two books: our manual in Tetun, and the textbook in Portuguese. They’ll take both when they go to teach.

Yet at the same time, students in junior-high should be moving toward competence in Portuguese, including the set of terms used for these concepts in that language.  It’s an unavoidable reality:  Timorese students have to work harder than their peers in other nations to reach the same level of achievement.  And their teachers have to work harder to support them. The best we can do is to give these teachers all the preparation possible with the time and resources we’ve got, and then pray (in both Tetun and Portuguese).

A decorative version of the familiar Timorese winnowing basket. Viqueque is the Portuguese word for a municipality with three different native languages. Tetun Terik spells the municipality name like this.


Timor-Leste’s Languages

Around 17 mutually unintelligible languages exist within Timor-Leste’s population of 1.3 million, and many dialects as well.  Most of these languages stem from the Austronesian language family, but four come from the entirely unrelated Papuan or Trans New Guinea language family.

‘Tetun Dili’, is truly a lingua franca here.  It arose from Tetun Terik, an indigenous language in various sub-districts along the south coast of Timor-Leste.  It has been developed over the years by general use and a number of linguists, including a big push by the Catholic Church during the Indonesian occupation. At that time Portuguese was banned, but most people had yet to learn Indonesian. Now it has been standardized by the National Linguistic Institute (INL), and can be used to talk about technical and modern topics.

Portuguese, the other official language of Timor-Leste, is of course a well-established modern language, by some measures the 5th most widely used in the world, ahead of French and German.  Tetun has borrowed many terms from Portuguese over the 400 years of colonial occupation, and the INL has clear rules for the orthography of further borrowed terms.  It would seem the two languages could stand in a good partnership, but troubles still prevail.

In 1999, when Timor-Leste was finally free from Indonesia, the language situation on the ground promised generations of challenges. The UN transitional administration carried out its business in four different languages, adding Indonesian and English for practical purposes.

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) was spoken by most people in 1999, after 25 years of occupation, while Portuguese fluency was mostly limited to those of an older generation who had been in significant contact with the colonial Portuguese, a portion by some estimates below 10% of the population.  The new government of Timor-Leste, as well as the Portuguese and Brazilians, put great support behind the teaching and learning of Portuguese throughout the nation.

This turned out to be a rocky road.  Today it is still not easy to find a young person truly fluent in Portuguese, and I’ve seen limits to the abilities of some old timers who learned it as children.  Even having some fluency in Spanish, I have found it an uphill battle to learn the intricacies of Portuguese. What’s more, many Timorese have not been interested in learning Portuguese, and it is an ongoing question of what use it is, once learned.

Tetun, on the other hand, has a beautifully simple grammar, and while it can be difficult to communicate precisely about technical subjects, I’ve used it to write many teacher and student resources for science and mathematics education, at primary through tertiary level, and seen them put to use effectively. The government in general does not curently support the further development of Tetun for use in the technical subjects, instead encouraging Portuguese.

A deep rift has formed between camps supporting and denigrating the other mother tongues in Timor-Leste.  According to one side, these ancient languages are culturally valuable and in need of preservation.  Research strongly supports the idea that further languages will all be learned with greater ease and effectiveness when the mother tongue is first learned well.  The other side counters that mother tongues are useless for a modern nation and in fact help keep it in a backward state.  To support mother tongues is a waste of precious development resources and often leads to divisions between different language groups.  This camp lobbies for 100% Portuguese immersion in schools from grade one, and no funds to be spent on non-official languages.  The camps tend to follow political lines, so the debate will doubtless continue for years.


See an article I wrote several years back for more background on Timor-Leste’s complex language situation.





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