[lg policy] Jose Ramos Horta: Timor-Leste=?windows-1252?Q?=92s_?=Language Policy: Tetum, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia Or English?
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Sat Apr 21 14:23:33 UTC 2012
Jose Ramos Horta: Timor-Leste’s Language Policy: Tetum, Portuguese,
Bahasa Indonesia Or English? – OpEd
Written by: Eurasia Review
April 20, 2012
Timor-Leste’s language policy positions Tetum and Portuguese as
official languages while making Indonesian and English as working
languages. A recent article in RSIS Commentaries misses the
open-mindedness and pragmatism behind the policy.
By President Jose Ramos-Horta
Once in a while a journalist or scholar opinionates on Timor-Leste’s
choice of its official languages. Victor Richard Savage, Associate
Professor in Geography at the National University of Singapore, wrote
recently: “The current presidential election in Timor-Leste has
brought international visibility to this rather marginalised state
within Southeast Asia.”
We have been called “fragile state”, “failing state”, “failed state”
but “marginalised state” is certainly a new title just bestowed on us.
Mr. Savage then proceeded to provide us with his scholarly opinion on
what is actually a very simple issue in Timor-Leste, the issue of
Articles 13 and 159 of our Constitution stipulate that Tetum and
Portuguese are our official languages and the Indonesian Language and
English are our working languages. Can one be more open-minded and
pragmatic than that?
Timorese leaders and people, though islanders, are very
outward-looking, open to cultural influences, eagerly learning and
absorbing the good (and bad) we see, read and hear around us. We are
among the most polyglot people in the world. A very large percentage
of us manage as many as three to five languages – a native language,
Tetum, Indonesian, English and Portuguese.
An increasing number of young Timorese are becoming conversant with
English. It is estimated that English is understood by 31.4%. I am
very impressed by how many of our youth have become fluent in Spanish,
Korean, Japanese, Chinese after only a few months of studying the
language. I always advise our youth to be open-minded towards
information, knowledge and other cultures and learn as many languages
as they can. I tell them not to be provincial as the average
Australian, American or Briton who can manage only English.
According to Timor-Leste’s 2010 census, close to 90% of all Timorese
use Tetum in their daily life. An estimated 35% are fluent Indonesian
Language users and 23.5% speak, read and write Portuguese. This is a
very impressive number bearing in mind that in 2002 less than 5% of
all Timorese understood Portuguese.
Growing importance of Tetum
In his essay Mr. Victor Savage questioned the wisdom of Timor-Leste’s
language policy and suggested that we should opt for English rather
than Tetum and Portuguese, ignoring the fact that our Constitution
provides space for Indonesian and English as working languages.
However Mr. Savage erroneously claims that while Tetum is an official
language “on the ground one gets the feeling that Portuguese has been
given priority because it is the language of communication of the
political and social elites – in short it is an elitist language in
Timor Leste. This language policy has its own challenges.”
It is obvious that either Mr. Savage has not been to Timor-Leste or
has been there only in the usual fly-in, fly-out fashion. Most
proceedings in our National Parliament, Cabinet, seminars, etc are
conducted in Tetum.
The Timorese resistance, Government and our Church have done more for
the spread and modernisation of Tetum than anyone. That Tetum is today
spoken by almost 90% of our people is a great measure of our success
in nation-building. But Tetum is still in the process of becoming a
truly modern, functional language. Hundreds of words are borrowed from
Portuguese, some from Indonesian Language, and I believe that in
another 10-20 years, Tetum will be a very colourful, rich and dynamic
language. Indonesian also borrowed hundreds of words from Portuguese
as a result of Portuguese colonial presence in the region.
In another 10 years half of our people will manage Portuguese – our
own version of Portuguese – as lively and musical as the Portuguese
spoken in Rio de Janeiro or Luanda. And Tetum will be as colourful and
lively but better endowed to face the challenges that come with the
nation’s opening to the world.
Mr. Savage, like many anglophiles, seems to hold a very simplistic
view that English alone literally opens Heaven’s gate for poor
Timor-Leste and would solve our economic and social problems. And if
English is the key to Timor-Leste’s future, then I presume it must
also be every poor country’s road from rags to riches.
English not the be all
Conversely, following such a line of argument, the said scholar and
others want us to believe that it was the English language that
actually catapulted nations like Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, France
into major industrial power status? Then how does one explain
Portuguese-speaking Brazil’s rise to global economic status overtaking
aging England to become the world’s sixth largest economy? And how
does one explain the on-going “fragile state” status of some Pacific
islands and Sub-Sahara African countries, which were under British
rule and adopted English as their official language since
And how about our Aborigine brothers and sisters in Australia whose
life expectancy is 10 years less than ours? Are they not supposed to
be much better off since they have been colonised by English speakers
for some 200 years?
Contrary to the Singaporean scholar’s assertion that our decision not
to use Indonesian has to do with political sensitivities, I say, we
have no hang-ups as far as Indonesian language and culture are
concerned. I have even argued that we should elevate Indonesian to
official language status at some point. We just have to carefully look
at every aspect of its implication in terms of costs, availability of
qualified teachers, etc. An estimated 36% of our people speak
Indonesian, but in the 5-10 age bracket, particularly in the rural
areas, this percentage drops significantly.
While we have great respect for the scholar’s seemingly extensive
knowledge about Indonesia and are grateful for his very wise advice,
Timor-Leste and the Republic of Indonesia enjoy exemplary relations in
every dimension – thanks to the foresight of the leaders of the two
countries in opting for a forward-looking, pragmatic approach in
managing the relationship.
Timor-Leste is an active member since 2005 of the ASEAN Regional Forum
and has participated in ASEAN Ministerial meetings for almost 10 years
now. We have full-fledged embassies in five ASEAN capitals and by the
end of 2013 we will have embassies in the remaining five. We also have
embassies in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. There are 20 foreign embassies
in Dili along with international organisations.
Not fated to slow progress
While I am grateful for Mr. Victor Savage’s useful contribution to the
debate on the language issue and for so generously showing us the
possible ways out of “regional marginalisation”, I dare to challenge
the Anglo-Saxon-centered view that somehow the whole world would be a
better place if we all surrendered to the dominance of the English
language. Our brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea, Liberia,
Zimbabwe, Swaziland, to mention but a few of the British
“Commonwealth” countries, might challenge that claim. And French,
Germans, Italians, Swedish might all disagree with Mr. Savage.
We all know how English is an important language for international
interaction and acquiring knowledge, especially if one wants access to
information on science and technology, international trade and
finance. But the fact that a particular language has regional or
global usage does not necessarily mean we must all automatically dump
our historical languages and roots and adopt it as official language.
Even if we were to be persuaded by Mr. Savage and other like-minded
scholars about the “superiority” of the English language and adopt it
as our official language, there would be extraordinary challenges in
terms of human and financial resources required to implement such a
But again, I would pause and ask my brothers and sisters in Papua New
Guinea, Liberia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, South Africa, etc if in their
experience of using English for many generations now, this supposedly
miraculous language has freed them from poverty and conflict and if
indeed they are now in 21st Century Heavens.
Their answer might be along the lines: “English is very useful, gives
us access to information on almost any field science, technology,
international commerce, etc. But in itself, English is not a short cut
out of poverty and prosperity. Just look at where we are now after
generations under British rule and generations in the British
I concede we are not all as practical-minded as our Singaporean
brothers and sisters. I confess we are mostly somewhat romantic, have
historical perspective, because we have a long history, and do not
possess Singaporeans’ practical and trade-oriented mind-set. So will
we be condemned to slow progress only because we have a vibrant
multi-cultural, multi-lingual, colourful, dynamic society, spending
some time enjoying the beauty of life?
I am sure we won’t. I am sure that Timor-Leste will be able to deepen
the quality of education, integrate seamlessly within ASEAN and spur
modern economic development without forsaking the common feeling of
belonging to our roots.
Jose Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and President of Timor-Leste.
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