[lg policy] TIMOR-LESTE: When do mother tongues divide?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 26 14:24:00 UTC 2012

TIMOR-LESTE: When do mother tongues divide?

When can A-B-C's spell conflict?

DILI, 26 March 2012 (IRIN) - A proposal to sanction the use of
indigenous languages in primary schools in polyglot Timor-Leste has
divided members of government, civil society and educators, raising
questions about how language can spur harmony - or discord - in the
young nation.

The “mother-tongue” programme is spearheaded by the United Nations
Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has
promoted similar programmes in other countries. Programme organizers
say children best develop cognitive skills when taught in the language
spoken in the home during their first years of school, rather than in
official national languages - Tetum and Portuguese in the case of
Timor-Leste - which are less commonly used in community settings.

Instructing children in their household languages prevents poorer
children, who tend to be less exposed to languages spoken outside
their homes, from being disadvantaged in school and eventually
dropping out, said UNESCO. About one in five children in Timor-Leste
must repeat the first year of schooling, and half of the students who
enrol in primary school do not complete it, according to the most
recent UN Human Development Index.

“Portuguese resonates historically, socially and culturally for
Timorese like no other language, but the reality is that in many homes
across Timor-Leste, neither [Tetum or Portuguese] is the first
language of communities, so their use inhibits [children’s] ability to
acquire new knowledge,” Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, an Australian-born social
activist who is head of the country’s UNESCO office, told IRIN.

Poor education and the limitations it imposes on job opportunities for
young people are among the leading potential causes of future
friction, she added. Youth gang violence has until recently been
problematic in cities, but is now declining. Barbara Thornton, an
education specialist and consultant on Timor-Leste’s mother-tongue
project on behalf of the World Bank, said current language policies
carry the risk of “entrenching class differences”.

Portugal controlled Timor-Leste as a colony until 1975. Less than two
weeks into Timor-Leste’s independence, Indonesia invaded and began a
brutal 24-year occupation. A quarter of the island nation’s population
perished under Indonesian rule.
Many of Timor-Leste’s independence leaders were educated in Portuguese
and have promoted it as the language of resistance to emphasize
historical and cultural differences between their would-be nation and
surrounding island territories controlled by Indonesia.

They also deemed Portuguese to be a neutral language among the people
of Timor-Leste, which has dozens of indigenous languages. When
Timor-Leste achieved independence, its leaders chose Portuguese and
Tetum as the country’s official languages and instructed schools to
teach in these. Tetum had by then emerged as a language spoken by a
majority of Timorese, while Portuguese was spoken by just a fraction
of the population. Today, teachers and students alike are still
struggling to catch up to the policy.

Bonafacio Barros, an 18-year-old high school student in Dili, the
capital, said he tended to “tune out” when his instructors used
Portuguese. “We can only understand a little bit.” Julia Gaio, an
adviser to the Ministry of Education, said many teachers struggled to
engage primary school students in their lessons unless they used the
children’s household language. Though most people in Timor-Leste speak
Tetum by adulthood, many have a tenuous grasp of the language during
their first years of schooling.

The mother-tongue programme will instruct in students’ household
languages in their first years at school, after which Tetum and
Portuguese will be gradually included. A pilot programme is scheduled
to be introduced in twelve primary schools across the country in
April. Opponents say the project will be difficult to implement
because most of the country’s indigenous languages have little or no
script and limited vocabularies.

More importantly, they argue, mother-tongue instruction could
jeopardize national unity in a country with less than a decade of
self-rule and a history of bloody flare-ups derived from regional
factionalism. “This policy would inculcate a sense of division… it
would slowly start to destroy national identity and unity,” said a
statement reflecting the strong opposition to the plan in some parts
of the country. It was released by a coalition of local NGOs, some of
which later withdrew their support.

“We are struggling to consolidate unity so that everybody thinks as
East Timorese instead of thinking, I’m a Mumbai, I’m a Fataluco,
etc.,” President José Ramos-Horta told IRIN, referring to two of the
country’s ethnic groups. In 2008, Ramos-Horta barely survived an
assassination attempt that stemmed, in part, from regional

He is concerned that a rollout beyond the 12 schools may detract from
efforts to boost literacy in Tetum, but proponents of the programme
see the opposite. “It is actually a way to keep the nation together by
[valuing] different languages and cultures,” said Agustinho Caet, an
official at the Ministry of Education. “If you don’t, it could create
conflict. People will say, ‘You are forgetting about our language.’”


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