Timor Leste: A New Country's Tough Non-Elective: Portu guese 101

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Tue Jul 31 20:11:43 UTC 2007

Is there any sort of professional entity that can advise countries on
language policy options? CLPP? Something in UNESCO? Having noted the
travails of Timor Leste over the last few years and some parallels with
countries elsewhere, it seems that some of the problems currently faced
could have been avoided.


Of course language policy gets political and the notion of external experts
writing prescriptions might be unacccptable.


Or what about an annual "state of the world's language policies" report that
could be a starting point for sharing successful approaches and less
duplication of mistakes?






From: owner-lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
[mailto:owner-lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu] On Behalf Of Harold
Sent: Tuesday, July 31, 2007 2:23 PM
To: lp
Subject: Timor Leste: A New Country’s Tough Non-Elective: Portuguese 101


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. 


01&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=SETH%20MYDANS&inline=nyt-per> SETH MYDANS

Published: July 31, 2007

sttimor/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> East Timor — 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
nations/index.html?inline=nyt-org> United Nations 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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