Timor Leste: A New Country ’s To ugh Non-Elective: Portuguese 101

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jul 31 18:23:14 UTC 2007


A New Country's Tough Non-Elective: Portuguese 101  Dita
Alangkara/Associated Press

Writings on a church in Dili, East Timor, are in Tetum, the main local
language. A new constitution made Portuguese the language of government.

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Published: July 31, 2007

DILI, East Timor<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/easttimor/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>—
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 here 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 re-imposed Portuguese after
East Timor became independent 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 among the country's many
other problems. Along with a struggle to provide health care, education,
government services, jobs and even food for its people, East Timor is now on
a crash course to learn its own official 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 the 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. A
bulletin board at the entrance to the campus 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, said Robert B. Kaplan, a senior co-editor of the journal
Current Issues in Language Planning.

The imposition of new national languages happens when countries are
colonized and it happens when they decolonize, he said. Sometimes, as in
East Timor, it happens a second time 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, which has been written in what may
well 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
outside monitors say testimony is often distorted.

During a just-completed parliamentary election, news conferences were held
in four languages, sometimes producing somewhat different versions of the
news. At The Timor Post, an English-language newspaper, 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 standards of fluency and perhaps because of the
effects of the current language-training programs. The United
Nations<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/u/united_nations/index.html?inline=nyt-org>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 claim a capability in Tetum, 58 percent
in Indonesian and 21 percent in English. The new Constitution establishes
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. "This is a political decision and I have to
implement it, like it or not," said Judge Maria Pereira, a Dili District
Court judge who has taken crash courses and now writes her decisions in what
she calls fairly good Portuguese. "I have no choice. As a judge I have to
implement the law." Some young Indonesian speakers, who had at first opposed
the use of Portuguese, now say they embrace it as a means of enriching and
developing Tetum. Already as much as 80 percent of Tetum is made up of
Portuguese loan words or Portuguese-influenced words, Ms. Taylor-Leech said,
although she said speaking Portuguese was unlikely to increase this number.

Another approach comes from President José Ramos-Jorta, one of the authors
of the Portuguese-language law. "We have to rethink our language policies,"
he said in a telephone interview. As a first step, he said, English and
Indonesian should be added to Portuguese and Tetum as official languages. "I
see no problem with a nation having four official languages." But his plan
does not end there, suggesting that questions of language could preoccupy
his country for years to come. Once they have become accustomed to their
four official languages, he said, "We can give the people the option to
choose two of them as compulsory languages."
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