Literacy in Timor

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jun 1 15:43:04 UTC 2008

Literacy in Timor

I've been thinking a bit about literacy in Timor recently and there
was a discussion on language policy on the ETAN list recently so I
weighed in. Below is my slightly edited email to the list:

I have been wondering to what extent the development of Tetum and
Portuguese are hindered by the lack of reading materials in either of
those languages.

Has there been any effort to develop home grown fiction? Teen novels
are hugely popular in Indonesia. Their plots are formulaic and most of
them are more than a little brainless, but they're written by
teenagers (or at least those who were teenagers relatively recently)
and deal with the issues that they face day-to-day.
They also get people reading.

How much Tetum or Portugeuse does your average teenager read on an
average day? On a school day, maybe a couple of hundred words. On a
weekend, your average teenager probably doesn't exceed a hundred. By
contrast your average, say, Australian teenager is emailing their
friends, reading blogs, flicking through magazines, reading good
quality textbooks (not crappy translations), and maybe even reading a
novel for fun. Australian are constantly wandering around in a sea of
English language information, I would guess that, even on a weekend,
your average Australian teenager reads over a thousand words a day.
(Note: I have no basis for these "facts", all figures are off the top
of my head).

How hard could it be to publish a novel in Tetum? Run a writing
competition calling for 10,000-15,000 word stories in Tetum (!) about
teenage life in Timor. The winning entry gets $500 and 5000 copies of
their book printed up for distribution around the country. Get it
properly edited to make sure all of the spelling and grammar are
consistent and correct, print up 5000 copies with brightly coloured
cartoons of Timorese teenagers doing teenage things on the cover and
send them out to schools all over the country. My personal preference
is that people have to pay for them (even if it's only 25c), one,
because it gives the project manager an accurate measure of
consumption of the book and, two, because it decreases the odds that
someone will just take a pile of them because they're free and then
have them sit on their shelf or use them as kindling, etc.

How much would it cost? Say, $2000 for advertising of the competition
(all over Timor, not just in Dili), $1,000 in prize money (for runners
up as well), $10,000 to print the books, $2000 for advertising of the
launch and building buzz and maybe another $5,000 in other costs
(salaries, etc). $20,000 not including what you make back in book
sales? Sounds pretty cheap to me...

To my mind, the most important part about this process is that the
books are originally written in Tetum and are not directly translated.
In Indonesia there are tens of thousands of translated books to choose
from in your average book store and almost all of them are practically
incomprehensible. This is because the translators often maintain the
sentence structure and flow of the original English and just translate
the words leading to a mish-mash that is just confusing.

CARE in conjunction with the Ministry of Education publishes a
bi-monthly Tetum and Portuguese magazine called Lafaek (Crocodile) for
use in schools that has activities for kids, crosswords, math puzzles,
articles with lots of photos, stories, cartoons and even vox pop style
interviews with kids from around the country. Spectacular as this
project is, and while I've heard anecdotally that teenagers and adults
read it all the time, surely it's not as interesting for them as
something really targeted at their demographic rather than at 4-10
year olds...

Anyway, that's just something I've been thinking about recently. If
anyone out there wants to do it, please feel free. Hell, I'll even
chuck in a hundred bucks for the writing competition prize money.

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