Languages: Tetum (official), Portuguese (official), Indonesian and English (working languages). There are about 16 indigenous languages; Tetum (also spelled Tetun), Galole, Mambae, and Kemak are spoken by a significant portion of the population. Tetum is the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

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. According to the 2004 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. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 31, 2007]

As a result of the colonial education system and the 23-year Indonesian occupation, approximately 13.5 percent of Timorese speak Portuguese, 43.3 percent speak Bahasa Indonesia, and 5.8 percent speak English, according to the 2004 census. Although Tetum is widely spoken only 46.2 percent speak Tetum Prasa, the form of Tetum dominant in the Dili district. Tetum, Galoli, Mambai, and Tokodede are classified as Austronesian languages, while Bunak, Kemak, Makassai, Dagada, Idate, Kairui, Nidiki, and Baikenu are the non-Austronesian tongues. This linguistic diversity is enshrined in the country’s constitution. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2008, Gale, 2007]

The maze of languages prevents development in East Timor. Tetum is useless outside of East Timor. It is a trading language and is understood by most Timorese but has a limited vocabulary and is not understood off the island. Although though maybe 10 percent of East Timorese speak Portuguese, the language was reintroduced into the government, courts, and schools. English and Bahasa Indonesia were classified as "working languages". There was some debate over which language would be official: Tetum, the local Timorese language, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, or even English. Portuguese is spoken by many older East Timorese but it is tainted by it association with colonialism and is not spoken by many young people. Only about 10 percent of the population speaks it. Bahasa Indonesian is spoken by as much as 90 percent of East Timorese under 25 but is tainted by it association with the Suharto regime and is not spoken by many older people. Bahasa Indonesian had been taught in schools since 1975. Newspapers are printed in Bahasa Indonesian and Tetum.

History of Languages in East Timor

The lingua franca and national language of East Timor is Tetum, which is a Malayo-Polynesian language influenced by Portuguese, with which it has equal status as an official language. Fataluku, a Papuan language widely used in the eastern part of the country (often more so than Tetum) has official recognition under the constitution, as do other indigenous languages, including: Bekais, Bunak, Dawan, Fataluku, Galoli, Habun, Idalaka, Kawaimina, Kemak, Lovaia, Makalero, Makasai, Mambai, Tokodede and Wetarese. [Source: ++]

The Lingua franca has been Tetum since the second half of the 19th century which is also the church’s vernacular. Currently the language issue is a sensitive one in context of nation building. Officially languages are Portuguese and Tetum, with Indonesian and English recognized as working languages. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 ,]

Under Portuguese rule, all education was through the medium of Portuguese, although it coexisted with Tetum and other languages. Portuguese particularly influenced the dialect of Tetum spoken in the capital, Dili, known as Tetun Prasa, as opposed to the more traditional version spoke in rural areas, known as Tetun Terik. Tetun Prasa is the version more widely used, and is now taught in schools. ++

The Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia, has ceased to be an official language, although it, along with English, has the status of a 'working language' under the Constitution. It is still widely spoken, particularly among younger people who were educated entirely under the Indonesian system, under which the use of either Portuguese or Tetum were banned.

For many older East Timorese, the Indonesian language has negative connotations with the Suharto regime, but many younger people have expressed suspicion or hostility to the reinstatement of Portuguese, which they see as a 'colonial language' in much the same way that Indonesians saw Dutch. However, whereas the Dutch culture and language had little influence on those of Indonesia, the East Timorese and Portuguese cultures became intertwined, particularly through intermarriage, as did the languages. ++

Young East Timorese have also felt at a disadvantage by the use of Portuguese, and accuse the country's leaders of favouring people who have only recently returned from overseas. However, even those older East Timorese who do speak Portuguese, having been in the resistance, have not found jobs despite their proficiency in the language. ++

Many foreign observers, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia have also been critical about the reinstatement of Portuguese. Some of these previously supported of Indonesian rule in East Timor, although others, supported East Timor's right to self-determination. In spite of this, many Australian linguists have been closely involved with the official language policy, including the promotion of Portuguese. ++

Although Portugal has been closely involved with the teaching of Portuguese in East Timor, there has also been support from Brazil, although there have been complaints from people in East Timor that teachers from Portugal and Brazil are poorly equipped to teach in the country, as they do not know local languages, or understand the local culture. However, the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who headed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, was a Brazilian who not only established a close working relationship with Xanana Gusmão (now the country's President) as a fellow Portuguese-speaker, but was also respected by many East Timorese because of his efforts to learn Tetum. ++

Ethno-Linguistic Groups in East Timor

Cliff Morris wrote: Timorese are of three different racial groups. But because of a long history of intertribal marriage there are no distinct physical features among people except in language. There are 16 languages and between 34 and 36 dialects. The people living along the south coast are Polynesian in language and custom, while those living on the north coast are Melanesian. In the mountains there are people who can be described by their language as Aboriginals. [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003]

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: Some of the major ethic groups include the Mambai, Tetun, Kemak, Bunaq, Fataluku and Galoli. There is great linguistic-cultural heterogeneity and complexity with the presence of both Austronesian and Trans-New Guinea Phylum languages (Fox 2000). The larger Austronesian language groups of East Timor include Tetum, Mambai, Galoli, Kemak, and Tokudede. Tetun and Kemak are also span the border and are found in the eastern part of Indonesian Timor. The Kemak speaking group within East Timor is spread in the Bobonaro, Ermera, and Ainaro districts. The less known Austronesian groups in East Timor include Bekais, Naueti, Waima’a, Kairui-Midiki, Idate, Lakalei and Habu (Hull 1999, 2002); Fox 2000:5). Bunaq is a Trans-New Guinea language found in the western part of East Timor but also across the border in Indonesian Timor. The other Trans-New Guinea languages are found mainly in the eastern part of East Timor, including the languages of Makassae, Dagada, and Adabe (ibid). For further available information on the linguistic complexity of East Timor see Wurm and Hattori 1981. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

Given the great cultural diversity present in East Timor, few of these cultures have been thus far anthropologically well documented. Specifically three groups that have been thoroughly studied: the eastern Tetun, the Marobo Ema, and the Mambai. David Hicks provides a number of ethnographic accounts on the eastern Tetun (See 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1997, 2004). Brigitte Renard-Clamagirand has produced a number of anthropological writings on the Ema (a.k.a. Kemak) of the Marobo region (See 1971, 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982). Her study is one of the first ones and somewhat ahead of her time that highlights the significance of origin houses in indigenous social organization and calls the Ema a ‘house society’. Elizabeth Traube provided a beautifully written and thoroughly analyzed account on the Mambai culture from a diachronic perspective (See 1980 and 1986). The following cultural notes focus on my own field research area, the Atsabe Kemak from the Ermera district. This ethnographic material is so far unpublished aside from Molnar (2004) and highlights certain commonly encountered features of indigenous cultures of East Timor.

Different Languages and Dialects in East Timor

Cliff Morris wrote:“Students of Timorese languages will soon learn that Timor is a land of many different languages and dialects with relatively few speakers of each. Consequently, the total area in which each language or dialect is spoken is very restricted, except Tetun-Dili, which has speakers over all of Timor. This dialect of Tetun is a simplified version introduced by the Portuguese to give a common commercial tongue among all the people. Therefore there is a wide variety of expertise among these speakers, who will invariable have another language as their mother tongue or first language. [Source: Cliff Morris, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ]

The number of distinct languages within East Timor will vary according to the way a language is designated. Listed are the main languages and dialects, with the town merely being the nearest to the area in which the language is spoken. Languages by Region (Language, Town, Language, Town; 1) Bunak, Bobonaro , Dagada, Lautem; 2) Galole, Manututu, Galole, Laclo; 3) Galole, Laleia , Idate, Laklubar; 4) Kemak, Bobonaro , Makasae, Laga; 5) Makasae, Ossu , Mambae, Aileu; 6) Mambae, Ainaro , Midiki, Baguia; 7) Na'uete Uato, Karabau , Nogo-Nogo, Kailaku; 8) Nogo-Nogo, Atabae , Tukudede, Likisa; 9) Tukudede, Maubara , Uaimo'a, Baukau. [(A. Cappell, 1934)]

Tetun all dialects; 1) Alas; 2) Bariki; 3) Bubu Susu; 4) Dili; 5) Dotik; 6) Fatu Berliu; 7) Fatu Lulik; 8) Fatu Mea; 9) Foho Ren; 10) Kamnasa; 11) Luka; 12) Remexio; 13) Samoro; 14) Suai; 15) Tilomar; 16) Ue Keke; 17) Atambua.

While Tetun is understood in all areas of Timor, there is a wide variation in the pronunciation and vocabulary, as the above languages have influenced Tetun in the areas of use. Similarly many words have been adopted from other languages. Even in areas where Tetun is regarded as the mother tongue there are a number of distinct dialects to add to the student's confusion. Over many millennia the Timorese have developed a strong skill in the art of story telling, which is demonstrated in poetry by the Na'i Lia's eloquent and expansive oratory.

Tetun Language in East Timor

Cliff Morris wrote:” TETUN rather than TETUM is regarded as being the correct name for the language because the Portuguese spell many words with 'M" where the phonetic sound is 'N', and this is what they have done with the word TETUM. Some people have erroneously adopted the 'M' spelling as the phonetic sound. [Source: Cliff Morris, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ]

“The wise old men (KATUAS) tell us that the people who lived on the plains (TETU, adjective), therefore the people who spoke the language were of the plains (TETUN, noun). There can be no argument as to the name of the language or its spelling as adjectives are changed to nouns by adding N. In any case no other Tetun word ends in M.

The biggest concentration of natural Tetun speakers occurs in the central south coast of East Timor, from Luka in the east to Alas in the west. While there are small regional differences within this area they are not sufficient to consider any of them a separate dialect. The dialect of this area has been called TETUN-LOS, and has been regarded as standard Tetun in this dictionary.

Broadly, Tetun can be divided into four main dialects: 1) TETUN-LOS centered around the town of Soidada and the Kingdom of Samoro and along the coast between Alas and Luka. No attempt has been made to include the more complex ritual language of poetry, which is used throughout all areas which Tetun is spoken. 2) TETUN-TERIK, spoken in the north-west of East Timor and the north-east of West Timor. This dialect is closely related to Tetun-Belu. 3) TETUN-BELU, spoken in the south-west of East Timor and the south-east of West Timor. Both this dialect and Tetun-Terok are often regarded as distinct languages from Tetun-Los because of different definitions for individual words, but the grammar and syntax are still synonymous. 4) TETUN-DILI (also known as TETUN-PRASA), the dialect taught to the Portuguese and other people needing a common language for commerce. This language is simpler in grammar than the other dialects and was regarded as the lingua franca in Portuguese times, but is now being challenged by Bahasa.

Portuguese Language in East Timor

Many East Timorese have Portuguese names. Portuguese words and expressions also freckle native languages. Portugese was chosen as an official language even though most people don’t speak it. The was some debate over which language would be official: Tetum, the local Timorese language, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, or even English. Portuguese is spoken by many older East Timorese but it is tainted by it association with colonialism and is not spoken by many young people. Only about 10 percent of the population speaks it.

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “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 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.”[Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 31, 2007 /]

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “The Portuguese language provides the Atsabe Kemak, as other East Timorese, for a way to imagine themselves as parts of a larger global community of Portuguese-speaking nations. The language issue is never the less contentiou s. Anderson’s (1993) discussion on “Imagining East Timor” during the Indonesian occupation also highlighted the issue of language (see also Lutz 1991). Whereas colonialism ended in the rest of the world several decades ago for the East Timorese, the Indonesian occupation resembled yet another form of colonialism (Anderson 1993). Colonial languages usually served as a window on the rest of the world (ibid), however, for young East Timorese the Indonesian language provided this medium. The new national language policies of East Timor extend this ‘linguistic window’, and thus Portuguese, Indonesian and English will become means of locating the local populations vis-à-vis the global. Although in the East Timorese case the language issue plays an important role in defining the new nation, it is only in relation to East Timor’s historical experiences and current processes of seeking a place within the international community as a Portuguese-speaking nation. The Atsabe Kemak feel rather ambiguous, however, towards the use of the Portuguese language. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“On the one hand, the label of a Portuguese-speaking nation secures a place in the global community. The use of the Portuguese language as a national language, however, has less to do with a historical continuity or the past commemoration of colonial historical experiences. The use of Portuguese is rather a recognition and commemoration of the decades of guerrilla war against Indonesia that resulted in the final establishment of this new nation, as Portuguese was the language of the freedom fighters. Therefore, Portuguese, while not popular, is being considered a symbol of newly gained freedom of a young nation.

“On the other hand, Portuguese as a national language is ‘resisted’ for several reasons. The majority of the population in Atsabe subdistrict speak Kemak and Tetum on a daily basis and in more official matters and schools they interact in the Indonesian language. Even the older generation does have some command of the Indonesian language. Only those few elders who have served in the Portuguese army or civil service (and a handful of former freedom fighters) know some Portuguese and the total number of these fluent speakers was estimated by local leaders to be less than 1 percent of the estimated total population (13, 080) of Atsabe subdistrict. For one thing, in local perceptions of a cross-cut of the subdistrict’s population (regardless of age, gender, and other social status) Portuguese limits access to interaction with a wider global community in terms of economic and technological development. Thus, Portuguese is being viewed as not ‘international enough,’ with a local preference for English. Another reason cited by Atsabe community leaders concerned the fact that young East Timorese received their education in the Indonesian language. Since there is an insistence on using Portuguese in official matters, young people cannot contribute to ‘immediate’ nation building and development. Furthermore, the very real lack of knowledge and fluency of Portuguese by the vast majority of the people and a cultural preference for the Tetum lingua franca, which is also the vernacular of the Catholic Church, were also emphasized among the Atsabe people.”

Language Issues in the New Nation of East Timor

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “The new nation of East Timor designated two languages as official languages: Portuguese and Tetum. Two other languages are considered as working languages: Indonesian and English. The language issue is an evolving one (as Tetum is being standardized) and among some sections of the population rather contentious. It is mainly some of the older people who had access to schooling during the Portuguese administration and the former freedom fighters who have some understanding of the Portuguese language. For the guerrilla fighters it was a language of subterfuge, a language not understood my Indonesian soldiers. Most of the younger generation that received their schooling during the Indonesian occupation, are fluent in the Indonesian language. For a discussion on East Timorese language situation during Indonesian occupation see Lutz 1991. The lingua franca and the vernacular adopted by the Catholic Church is Tetum. 6 of May 2001 Report from The Asia Foundation, entitled East Timor National Survey of Voter Knowledge (Preliminary Findings). “27 percent of East Timorese between the ages of 35-50 can speak Portuguese, as opposed to only 11 percent of those under 25.” Portuguese as an official language is contentious among many of the East Timorese people. Popular attitudes about the language situation which I have heard in many places as an election observer prior to the Constituent Assembly elections in 2001 did not seem to have changed much in 2002 after official independence. The more general views on the national language can be illustrated by the reaction of the people in the Atsabe subdistrict of Ermera district. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“The very first day I arrived to commence ethnographic research in 2002 in Atsabe, I was asked to give talks and hold discussion session with junior and senior high school students, and especially to provide English language lessons at the school. I was asked by teachers to use the mediating language of Indonesian to teach English and in return the students were to provide me with the local language, Kemak, equivalents. The students were fluent in both Indonesian and Tetum. More often than not students would provide Tetum equivalent in the first instance, as they could not recall vocabulary in Kemak. The high school teachers or principal also attended these sessions as they wished to learn English. Students receive Portuguese lessons as part of the new regular curriculum, however, both teachers and students expressed the view that they need to learn English since that is the true international language [their phrasing] and if they are to have future opportunities in education or jobs Portuguese will not help them much. At times an extremely strong anti-Portuguese language sentiment was expressed which reflected the general attitudes of the Atsabe Kemak who were vociferous in their critique of the national language choice with reference to future opportunities for participating in a global arena.

In Atsabe subdistrict there was a very real lack of knowledge of and fluency in Portuguese by the vast majority of the people. People throughout Atsabe emphasized their cultural preference for Tetum lingua franca and ‘true national language’ [their phrasing]. They viewed Tetum as the essential bridge across the vast linguistic diversity of East Timor and an aspect of a Catholic identity. Thus from this perspective, the Atsabe people viewed Tetum (and not Portuguese) as an important marker of East Timorese national identity. The local Kemak language (several dialects of it) is only used in daily life and is often mixed with Tetum words among the 50 year olds and younger generation. In the weekly market, in Church, in interaction with people from other cultural groups, and among the youth Tetum is the language of choice. As pointed out above, the youth (in their 30s and younger) are more familiar with the Tetum lingua franca, and of course the Indonesian language that is the language of school instruction, than their own mother tongue. While official matters must be conducted in Portuguese, such as parts of the weekly flag-raising ceremony — the pledge and the national anthem — most people will speak either (or both) Indonesian or Tetum even in the local sub-district administrative office. Official documents and correspondences are constructed in the Indonesian language. Fortunately most Atsabe Kemak are multi-lingual. Many will speak all the dialects of Kemak and speak Tetum fluently. Most people, with the exception of some elders over 70 years of age, are fluent in Indonesian or at least know some Indonesian. Some of the Atsabe Kemak, particularly those from Paramin village also know some Mambai, a situation due to the intricate marriage alliances they have with a migrant Mambai group that found refuge in Atsabe in the distant past. It is rare to find people who know Portuguese any more, except for some elders and some of the former freedom fighters who are not fluent but know some of the language. The majority of the population in Atsabe subdistrict speak Kemak and Tetum on a daily basis and in more official matters and schools they interact in the Indonesian language. Even the older generation does have some command of the Indonesian language. The total number of these fluent Portuguese speakers was estimated by local leaders to be less than 1 percent of the estimated total population (13, 080) of Atsabe subdistrict.

However, it was not always clear to me whether this is a factual situation or more an issue of ‘silent resistance’ (cf. Scott 1990) to a national language choice and policy that was not favored by the majority of the Atsabe people. They expressed their resentfulness that no public consultation was conducted before Portuguese was made the national language. Even certain elder individuals who were high ranking civil servants in the local district, subdistrict and village administration during Portuguese times claimed no longer to know the language. For example, when some Portuguese UN soldiers (PKF) were dispatched to calm an outbreak of violence surrounding Obulo village, I was asked by high status local community leaders to find out if the soldiers spoke English and then to translate to them the community leaders’ report and assessment of the situation based on their intimate knowledge of local social dynamics into English! The English language was only known to a handful of teachers (2) and local policemen (2) who are far from fluent. The Atsabe Kemak continue to adjust their choices of code switching with every single circumstance and situation; utilizing language choice to emphasize aspects of cultural identity. However, the popular opinion has been that Tetum should be the national language since that is the most common form of everyday cross-cultural (meaning across different linguistic-cultural groups of East Timor) communication. It is this language that is the most commonly heard form of communication in public forums in Atsabe subdistrict and is the vernacular of Catholic Church services.

Controversy Over the Use of Portuguese in East Timor

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: There is an ambiguity about the use of the Portuguese language. Portugal is one of the donor nations of East Timor, albeit not the largest donor by any means. Portugal’s major contribution is in the field of education. Portugal has sent teachers and textbooks to train the younger generation in the official language, which is only known to a small minority of the entire East Timorese population. East Timor as a newly independent nation is in the process of carving out a new national identity, not just as the newest Southeast Asian nation but also as member of the Portuguese speaking nations of the world, thus emphasizing both a regional and global identity. Positioning itself in the global community as a member of Portuguese speaking nations is also an aspect of the new East Timorese government’s discourse on national identity. It also seems to me however, that such ‘global positioning’ on the part of the new government, is also a form of justification and an attempt to quell general dismay for choosing Portuguese as an official language of Timor Leste despite of popular preference for the lingua-franca of Tetum. Nevertheless, the notion of being part of a larger international Portuguese speaking community continues to be propagated through media programs (radio and television in Dili, the capital) and newspapers. Indeed this international positioning was particularly emphasized during the summer of 2002 during the Soccer World Cup. East Timorese were glued to the television in the capital city, Dili, and were rooting for Brazil. The media encouraged support on radio, television and print media was couched in idioms of ‘Brazil is like a brother so they need our support’, and ‘they are also Portuguese speakers’. One would hear similar exclamations even in Atsabe where there is no electricity unless one owns a private generator and at best there is poor radio signal reception. Villagers who visited Dili at the time, upon their return to Atsabe were agents of propagation for this discourse. Thus, even those who did not watch any part of the tournament nor read newspapers picked up on these ‘globalizing’ phrases, particularly the expression that called Brazilians brothers since they also experienced Portuguese colonialism and spoke the same language. Language teachers from Portugal in the Atsabe subdistrict also encourage the rhetoric of ‘brotherhood’ and membership in the global community of Portuguese nations not just in their classroom lessons but also in their wider interaction with the community. Sundays, usually after Mass, the teachers have many invitations for visiting various households (not just of the elite) and during these occasions the rhetoric is often heard in one form or another. I have been asked to accompany the teachers so that I could translate during such visits. These interactions provided for some fascinating linguistic gymnastics between Portuguese, English, Tetum, Kemak, and Indonesian languages. The Portuguese teachers preferred to talk to me in English but sprinkled in a lot of Portuguese when they had difficulty expressing themselves. My offers to keep it to Portuguese they declined. Then their dialogue I would translate into the language preferred by the households Indonesian, or mixed Kemak and Tetum languages. At times the translation would completely switch to Kemak with only a few Indonesian phrases slipped in for concepts not easily expressed in the Kemak language. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“National attempts at carving out a place in the global community are reaching places like Atsabe and the national discourse on identity is made part of local reformulations of identity (cf. Appadurai 1996). This idea of being part of a global community was expressed in yet another manner. A frequently recounted story also surrounded the first time that the UN flag was lowered and in its place the East Timorese flag was raised (in May 2002). According to the various local accounts, people were in tears for days and produced a special hand woven textile (tais) in which to wrap the UN flag, as if it was a death shroud, but also to protect it and to preserve its mystical ‘sacred’ power (luli). This flag came to symbolize liberation and protection but more importantly a recognized place in the global union of nations as a country in its own right. In September 2002 East Timor became the 191st member nation of the UN, a milestone event that was celebrated and much publicized in local media. Atsabe Kemak insisted on raising UN flag, which in 2002 was flying on a post outside the sub-district administrative compound. Initially Atsabe people wanted to see their own national flag flying beside and next to the UN flag but for practical reasons (where the flag poles were located) the two flagpoles now diagonally face each other. The UN flag not only came to symbolize liberation to the Atsabe Kemak, but a newly found possibility of ‘imagining’ a rightful membership in a global community.

“The government’s endeavours in propagating a more international positioning of East Timorese identity through a national language which was not chosen by the electorate clearly exemplifies Foucault’s arguments about power which is inherent in discourse itself, in the socialization of knowledge. It is not only the East Timorese government however that pursued the socialization of the concept of a ‘global community’. The United Nations was also highly instrumental in suffusing such foreign concepts, also including ‘democracy’, ‘national identity’, ‘human rights’, ‘inequality’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘gender issues’, etc. By 2002 fieldwork period these were notions that were part of the general discourse of most Atsabe residents, including illiterate peasants selling their wares at the weekly market. Therefore, their ‘taken for granted knowledge’ (doxa) (Bourdieu) or system of knowledge that determines the limits of thinking and acting (discourse) (Foucault) have been transformed or were in the process of transforming.

Use of Portuguese in East Timor

Reporting from Dili,Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “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. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 31, 2007 /]

“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. /

“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. “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.” /

Struggle to Teach Portuguese in East Timor

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, ““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. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 31, 2007 /]

“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./

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. /

Brendan Brady wrote in Time, “The reality of Portuguese's limited reach in the country is most conspicuous in schools. After independence, many teachers scrambled to learn Portuguese so they could follow the rules, though Tetum and other indigenous languages are often used de facto. "Almost all of the teachers here have a problem with the Portuguese language, [but] Portuguese is what's mandated," says the principal of Colegio San Miguel, a primary school in Dili. Joao Marsao, who at 58 is older than most of his fellow teachers and learned Portuguese when the European country still ruled, says many of his colleagues approach him with basic questions about how to talk with their students in Portuguese. [Source: Brendan Brady, Time, January 4, 2012 ^=^]

“It is against this backdrop that a group of education-policy officials is advocating for reforms that would sanction the use of local languages in primary schools. They say international expertise is on their side. UNESCO has for years asserted that children best develop cognitive skills — and, eventually, learn to speak, read and write in multiple languages — by being taught in their early years in their household language. The group also posits that instructing children in their indigenous language promotes social equality by giving regular students — unlikely to have had private lessons in a nonhousehold language — an equal opportunity to participate in class. ^=^

"We need to create an environment in the classroom where children can express themselves [and become] thinking, contributing citizens for one of the youngest countries in the world," says Kirsty Sword Gusmão, an Australian-born former social activist married to East Timor's Prime Minister. The First Lady is chair of East Timor's UNESCO commission and has spearheaded the effort to change language policy for the country's schools. She says inveterate biases instilled by colonialism are one of the main obstacles to the program's gaining support. Many parents believe their children are taking a step backward, she says, by receiving an education in their indigenous language, which they often see as primitive. But that perception can change when parents see improvements in how their children engage in a classroom that uses their mother tongue. ^=^

“In the district capital of Manatuto, the main elementary school is among a few across the country where the community has decided, through a public consultation and vote, to have lessons in early grades taught mostly in their local language, Gololei. "It means our local language and identity will not be lost," says Gaspar da Costa, 52, who has two sons attending the school. One of the school's teachers, Inocencia Sequeira Miranda, says the change has spared her from the awkward pauses that used to silence her lessons. "It was difficult because Portuguese wasn't even a language that I knew well. When I spoke, the students would just stare at me with a blank look on their faces," she says. "Now I'm more confident, and it's easier for the kids to understand." ^=^

“That children learn best in their first years of school in their household language has been "proved time and time again in countries worldwide," says Robert Phillipson, a professor of linguistics of Copenhagen Business School and author of Linguistic Imperialism. He says that studies of primary schools in India and Nepal have shown that children benefit most from their education when it is conducted in the language of their community. He also points to Zambia's education system, which he says has outperformed that of its neighbor and fellow former British colony Malawi by making more room for local languages in schools. "The evidence is that if you grant people rights to use their indigenous languages, it does no harm to the state," Phillipson says. "It's not a recipe for the country to be disintegrated." ^=^

Aid workers worry that if nothing else teaching almost the entire population a new language would be very costly and the money would be better spent rebuilding the country.

Politics of Teaching Portuguese in East Timor

Brendan Brady wrote in Time, “With the sleeves of his button-down shirt rolled up, the man stood on an open-air stage before an audience of hundreds and read his poems with dramatic pauses, varied inflection and a sense of purpose that comes naturally to those accustomed to holding court. The man, 65-year-old Xanana Gusmão, is a former guerrilla leader and the current Prime Minister of East Timor, an island nation in Southeast Asia, which was the world's youngest country until South Sudan gained independence last year. That he was reading his poems in Portuguese, a language understood by a small fraction of the population, spoke to the close but often convoluted relationship between language, identity and politics in newly independent states. [Source: Brendan Brady, Time, January 4, 2012 ^=^]

“Modern-day East Timor was claimed by Portugal in the 16th century. In 1975, no longer a global power, Portugal withdrew. Indonesia immediately invaded, claiming precolonial ownership of the island. Gusmão joined the main armed resistance group, Fretilin. A gifted orator and writer, he would become its leading voice along with José Ramos-Horta, now the President of East Timor and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Gusmão, Ramos-Horta and other resistance leaders were educated in Portuguese and promoted it as the language of the resistance to underline the historical and cultural differences between the island nation and Indonesia as well as to avoid infighting over which of the country's numerous indigenous languages is most emblematic of East Timorese identity. ^=^

“The resistance achieved its aim in 1999, but not until Indonesia's brutal quarter-century occupation claimed some 200,000 lives and systematically devastated the social and physical foundations of the country. In 2001 an assembly elected to draft a constitution for newly independent East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, chose Portuguese and Tetum as the official languages of the nation, to be used in parliament, schools and other public venues. Notably, the constitution and founding laws were drafted only in Portuguese. Spoken by a majority of East Timorese, Tetum had emerged as the closest thing to a national language, but the other selection, Portuguese, was controversial. Educated during the occupation, the majority of the country's youth had a much stronger grasp of Indonesian. But as the language of East Timor's recently ousted tormentors, it was viewed as toxic by the captial city of Dili's politicians. ^=^

“Today many of the practical consequences of the Portuguese language's prominent status in East Timor remain troublesome. Judges speak mostly in Portuguese even though few in the courtroom — defendants and witnesses included — can understand it. Live translation often fails to prevent confusion and misunderstanding. Legislation is sometimes drafted only in Portuguese, leaving some parliamentarians unable to read a bill they are voting on. ^=^

“Whatever empirical and anecdotal evidence exists in support of a countrywide shift in language policy, many East Timorese remain skeptical. "The intention is very good, but in practice it will be very difficult to implement," says Ceu Federer, who at times during the Indonesian occupation served as a courier between resistance groups. In some communities, students don't share a common first language and, more significant, most of East Timor's indigenous languages are limited to oral communication, with little or no script. Federer, who is fluent in Portuguese, also points out that Tetum has numerous loan words from Portuguese, which makes teaching in the European language less formidable. ^=^

“There are also suspicions that deeper motives are behind the proposed language-policy changes, says Augustinho Caet, an official at the Ministry of Education who is at odds with some of his peers in the government in pushing for this change. "[Some people] think we are going to replace the official languages," he says. "That is not what we aim to do. We aim to help them learn better Portuguese and Tetum." The resistance Caet anticipated has materialized. A parliamentary resolution in August reiterated the country's original language policy and, pointedly, said Portuguese had a fundamental historical, social and political role in East Timor and that any changes to the language's official place "would condemn the country to irrelevance and, eventually, to subordination." Even amid this opposition, Sword Gusmão and Caet are introducing a pilot mother-tongue program in a dozen more schools across the country this year. ^=^

East Timor is still grappling with its traumatic history, and framing and reframing its antioccupation resistance narrative. Language plays a central part in this story, says Max Stahl, a British video journalist whose 1991 footage of Indonesian soldiers massacring East Timorese helped bring international attention to the occupied nation's plight. "East Timor desperately needs to consolidate its identity as a state," he says. How this effort is waged through classroom language policies could fundamentally change the script for East Timor's history, present and future.” ^=^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated November 2019

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