[lg policy] Language policy in East Timor: The quest for cultural democracy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 21 14:28:45 UTC 2013

Language policy in East Timor: The quest for cultural democracy
 Gerald W. Fry October 21, 2013 1:00 am
The discussion of language policy in East Timor begins with the statement
of two key related underlying principles: cultural democracy and the right
to begin basic studies in an individual's mother tongue. Latino scholars
Manuel Ramrez III and Alfredo Castaeda first introduced the importance of
cultural democracy to recognise an individual's rights to remain identified
with the culture and language of their cultural group.

With respect to education in the mother tongue, Unesco has established a
special website related to this approach. Unesco has encouraged
mother-tongue education in early childhood and primary education since
1953. Research evidence, from many settings around the world - including
northern Thailand - indicates that when children start school in their
mother tongue, they are more likely to like school and not to drop out -
and to learn much more effectively. Later they can transition to standard
Thai, for example, or in the case of East Timor, to Portuguese.

In East Timor, there is definitely no universal agreement that students
should start off in the official language of Tetum.

What impresses me most about East Timor is its multilingual landscape and
the extent to which the Timorese are polyglots. Many Timorese speak two or
more languages. Signage is linguistically diverse and signs are common in
Tetum, Portuguese, English, and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). Official
signs are primarily in Portuguese and/or Tetum, the two official languages
of East Timor.

Data from the 2010 national census clearly indicates the linguistic
diversity of East Timor. There are 32 local indigenous languages, six of
which are considered endangered. Based on this census, the most commonly
spoken mother tongues are Tetum Praca, 36.6 per cent and Mambai, 12.5 per
cent. It is estimated that 59 per cent know Indonesian, 31.4 per cent,
English, and 23.5 percent, Portuguese. English and Indonesian are
considered working languages.

It is important to note that there are two varieties of Tetum (from the
Austronesian language family): Tetum Praca or Tetum- Dili (which is heavily
influenced by Portuguese) and Tetum-Terik, a prestigious regional variety
primarily spoken in the south and southwestern regions of East Timor.

Danielle Boon did a fascinating study of East Timor's adult literacy
programme, based on the Cuban model, Yo Si Puedo. Though the formal
curriculum is in Tetum, she found that multiple languages were being used
in the classroom for diverse purposes.

A new language of instruction policy has recently been drafted. A key
element is that the mother tongue will be the focus of the early years of
schooling. It is currently in a pilot stage.

The goal is certainly culturally democratic, emphasising "preserving
cultural and linguistic diversity as a means to achieving national unity,
peace, and equitable development (National Education Commission, 2011).

In a cultural democratic environment, Timorese parents and students have
had freedom to choose between different language tracks such as their
mother tongue, then Portuguese; Tetum, then Portuguese; Tetum, then English
… Many Timorese have chosen Portuguese and rejected mother-tongue

Many younger Timorese, especially those in Dili, see English as having
great social capital with respect to job opportunities. During the first
decade of this century, 15 UN agencies and 122 international NGOs were
active in East Timor. Many of these organisations use English as their
working language. Others, such as the large number who go to Indonesia, see
Indonesian as having valuable social capital.

The Timorese freedom to choose the language of instruction (won through
their fight for independence) is consistent with Amartya Sen's (Nobel
laureate) concept of "development as freedom" and Robert Chamber's
(professor at Sussex University) emphasis on participatory development.

Having curricular materials in multiple languages is, of course, more
costly, but East Timor probably can afford this, given an economy
turbo-charged with oil and gas revenues, and development funds from diverse

Ken Westmoreland, a Portugusese and Tetum translator, has done a recent
book on East Timor entitled, "A Pretty Unfair Place: East Timor Ten Years
after Self-Determination (2009)". He has an in-depth understanding of the
cultural and linguistic landscape of East Timor.

Critics of the policy of having Portuguese as an official language fail to
appreciate the value of learning Portuguese. First, Portuguese is a link to
the relatively large Lusophone community of Brazil, Portugal, Angola,
Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe. Also,
Portuguese is used in Goa and Macau. Second, it is relatively easy to
transition from Portuguese to Spanish, a language spoken in a large number
of countries and clearly a world language. Third, important abstract words
in Portuguese, Spanish, and English are often similar but with different
pronunciations. Thus, Portuguese can be a valuable window to English.

Gerald W. Fry

Distinguished International Professor

Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development

College of Education and Human Development

University of Minnesota

gwf at umn.edu


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or
sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal, and to write
directly to the original sender of any offensive message.  A copy of this
may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20131021/7492c1e4/attachment.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list