East Timor drowns in language soup

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Apr 24 14:28:19 UTC 2007

 FEATURE-East Timor drowns in language soup
23 Apr 2007 18:03:23 GMT
Source: Reuters
 By Ahmad Pathoni

DILI, April 23 (Reuters) - Portuguese is one of the two official languages
in East Timor, but you can hardly hear it spoken in the streets of the young
nation. The tiny country was a Portuguese colony for more than three
centuries, but only an estimated 5 percent of its one million people now
speak the European language. After Lisbon cut the territory free, East Timor
was occupied by neighbouring Indonesia for 24 years before gaining full
independence in 2002. Under Indonesian rule, Portuguese was suppressed and
speakers of the language now mostly come from the political elite or are
older people educated in the colonial era.

Despite government attempts to push the use of Portuguese as an official
language, Indonesian remains the main language of instruction in secondary
schools and universities, along with native Tetum, the other national
language. Many of East Timor's leaders left for exile in Portugal or its
colonies before or soon after the territory was invaded by Indonesian forces
and many of them do not speak Indonesian. They consider Portuguese to be the
language of resistance. But the government's decision to enshrine Portuguese
in the constitution is criticised by some, who see it as short sighted.

They say many young people educated under Indonesian rule have been denied
state jobs because they lack Portuguese skills. "This is the biggest type of
discrimination practised by the government," said Suzanna Cardoso, a
Timorese journalist. The government does not recognise the contribution of
those educated under the Indonesian system to the struggle for
independence," she told Reuters. Cardoso said English would be more useful
for East Timor. "Why do we have to use Portuguese? Portuguese-speaking
countries are poor and they are far from us," she said.


Tetum is used in daily interaction but some experts say it is mainly a
spoken language and has to be developed further for wider usage. But the
issue is sensitive and a cabinet minister has been criticised for only
speaking Portuguese and never using Tetum in public. Signboards at
government offices are written in Portuguese, although for most Timorese it
remains a foreign language they don't understand. Newspapers run articles in
Tetum and Indonesian side-by-side. Indonesian TV soap operas are also hugely
popular. "I don't know any Portuguese. I'd rather learn English than
Portuguese," said Ano Pereira, a driver and high school graduate.

The language issue was raised by some of the eight candidates contesting
April 9 presidential elections, with one promising to ditch Portuguese if he
won the presidency. News conferences during the elections were held in four
languages -- English, Tetum, Portuguese and Indonesian -- adding to the
difficulty of co-ordinating the fairly chaotic polls. No candidate in the
election won a big enough majority to win outright and a run-off is expected
to be held next month. At the National University of East Timor, teachers
give lectures and students write their theses in Indonesian.

"Most of our textbooks are in Indonesian and most lecturers don't speak
Portuguese," management student Julio Rangel said as he sat at the hallway
of a white-painted campus building, a Catholic seminary during colonial
times. A report released by the United Nations Development Programme in 2002
said 82 percent of East Timor's one million population spoke Tetum, while 43
percent could speak Indonesian. Only 5 percent spoke Portuguese. The
government, dominated by the Fretilin party which spearheaded the struggle
against Indonesian rule, has brought in teachers mostly from Portugal to
teach in elementary schools.

But there are concerns that once pupils finish elementary education, they
will have to enrol at a secondary school where teachers don't speak
Portuguese. "This is going to be a big problem. These students don't speak
Indonesian and their teachers don't know Portuguese," said Julio Thomas
Pinto, who teaches at two universities in the East Timor capital Dili. The
head of East Timor's National Institute of Linguistics, Dr Geoffrey Hull,
defends the adoption of Portuguese as a national language. "Anyone with the
slightest familiarity with East Timor's history knows that the Portuguese
language has long been central to the national identity," he said on the
institute's Web site.

"East Timor needs both Tetum and Portuguese to be fully itself," he said.
But Silvino Pinto Cabral, an economics lecturer at the national university,
is not convinced. "This policy of imposing a foreign language will not work.
I doubt that in 50 years the government will be able to make the whole
nation proficient in Portuguese," he said.

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