Sebastião Aparício da Silva Project

for the Protection and Promotion

of East Timorese Languages

East Timor

Identity, Language and Educational Policy

Dr Geoffrey Hull
University of Western Sydney (Australia)

English translation of address to the CNRT National Congress, Friday 25 August, 2000

Mr President of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, Your Lordships, Reverend Fathers and Sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen: I thank you most sincerely for the great honour of this opportunity to speak at your National Congress.

One year ago when the people of East Timor voted almost 80% for independence, the whole world admired the nation's unity, a unity which had kept the country's cultural identity alive during the whole Indonesian occupation. And so it was with much regret that the friends of East Timor abroad heard, after the referendum, that considerable differences of opinion concerning the nation's official language had manifested themselves. This is a serious problem, because a nation's most potent symbol is its language. Doubts about the official language imply doubts about the nation's identity.

As a linguist who has striven for years to study and help preserve East Timor's cultural heritage, particularly its languages, my contribution today is to put before you my thoughts on this problem. In this address I will outline several principles for linguistic and cultural policies, comparing the situation in East Timor with that of other countries. I shall also present some of the facts-historical events and social phenomena-that have conferred on the people of East Timor a unique identity in the world.

When colonialism came to an end in various countries after the last world war, each new state had to seek and cultivate its national identity. In countries which shared a language, culture and religion with their neighbours, the search for a distinct identity was often difficult, for example in many Arabic-speaking countries. In other cases, especially in Africa, new states kept the borders earlier created by a colonial power. States of this kind could seem artificial creations, because they were collections of peoples of different languages, customs and religions. And since there was not a common culture, the new government was often unwilling to elevate any one of the numerous vernaculars to official-language status, for fear of vigorous reactions from other language groups. Thus the new state would have to retain the colonial language-English, French or Portuguese-as its official one. This language, although originally foreign, had one big advantage: its neutrality.

By contrast, when Portuguese Timor was about to emerge from its colonial period twenty-five years ago, the country had no need to search for a national identity. It was unique from a linguistic point of view, with fifteen indigenous languages, most of them purely East Timorese and some of them broken up into local dialects. Over and above this polyglot situation, most of the territory was unified by the use of Tetum as a lingua franca, and people who had gone to school also spoke Portuguese. Timorese polyglossia did not prevent the colonial officials and Catholic clergy from communicating with the population, since wherever Portuguese was not known there were people able to speak the Tetun-Dili or Tetun-Prasa variety of Tetum, greatly mixed with Portuguese and therefore easily learnt by the Europeans.

One can compare the role of Tetum in East Timor with that of Malay in the Dutch East Indies. Just as in Portuguese Timor speakers of Makasai, Mambai or Bunak could communicate by using Tetum, the people of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Celebes and the countless smaller islands were united by the common use of Malay, which had originally spread from Sumatra. Given the usefulness of this language in the vast Dutch colony, when the Republic of Indonesia was formed, the new government, though dominated by Javanese individuals, chose Malay, not Javanese, as the official language. So as to use it as a potent tool of the national ideology, they changed the language's name to Bahasa Indonesia "Indonesian language".

In order to understand properly the cultural situation in East Timor, one needs to consider the recent history of Indonesia, because events there affected the former Portuguese colony. This influence reached its peak during the Occupation (1975-1999), when the Indonesians abolished the Portuguese syllabuses in all the schools, replacing them with Indonesian ones. The new syllabuses taught children only about Indonesian culture and history, and ignored the radically different culture and history of East Timor. As was to be expected, Indonesian education led Timorese children and adolescents to view the world, and their own country also, through Indonesian eyes.

When the Suharto regime was spreading its nationalist ideology through the education system, the Indonesian Army was terrorizing and oppressing the population. Many young people, although the recipients of a Suhartoist formation in the schools and the University, were moved to take part in the national resistance movement. The students supported the patriotic struggle with great courage, some of them shedding their blood for the cause, and won the admiration of the whole world.

Unfortunately, when East Timor won its freedom, a conflict between the older generation and the younger generation soon came to the fore. All Timorese were at one on the question of founding a new state; but they differed on questions of language and culture.

At present there are two main conflicting perspectives on East Timor's cultural identity, with many variations in between. At one extreme, some of the older people wish to have Portuguese as the sole official language and foresee no official status for Tetum or any other vernacular. At the opposite end of the spectrum are some younger people who want Tetum alone to be the official language and are anxious to do away with Portuguese. Some claim that only Portuguese should be employed as East Timor's world language; others opine that English would be more practical than Portuguese. As for Indonesian, there are Timorese willing to reinstate it as a language of regional utility; others would like it abolished and banished completely because of its associations with the Suhartoist occupation. These conflicts are heating tempers and dividing the nation.

How did this situation come about? The roots of the conflict are to be sought in the colonial past. East Timor's colonial past is a dual one, the younger generation having been influenced by Indonesian neo-colonialism and the older generation having grown up in the atmosphere of classical Portuguese colonialism.

We shall consider first of all the effects of Indonesian nationalist ideology on the minds of the post-1975 generation. After Indonesia gained its independence, the new government gradually abolished Dutch, first in government and administration, and finally in the (minority of) schools where it had been used as a teaching medium. Abrogating and stirring up public dislike of the Dutch language was consonant with the new republic's anti-colonial ideology. As we have seen, the status of Malay as Indonesia's national and official language was not shared with any other vernacular, not even Javanese. The Indonesian Constitution allowed the part-time teaching in schools of vernaculars with two million or more speakers. All other local languages, i.e. most of them, had no place in public education. In the press Indonesian was also dominant, with little or no place given, for example, to Javanese, Balinese, Batak or the Dawan of West Timor.

However, as Malay-Indonesian was not a world language, the new nation needed a second language for communicating with other countries. Having abolished Dutch, the Jakarta government chose English. Later on, the capitalist Suharto regime would retain English, attractive because of its economic importance. Hence today English-not historic Dutch-is the most widely taught foreign language in Indonesian schools and universities.

Now what is significant about all this for East Timor is that those who advocate Tetum only as the official language, who urge the abolition of Portuguese as a 'colonial language', who foresee no place in the schools or the media for vernaculars like Baikenu, Fataluku, Mambai or Kemak; who want only English as East Timor's second language.... such people, whether they realize it or not, are actually seeking to impose on the nation a cultural regime that comes straight from Jakarta, a model that has nothing genuinely East Timorese about it. This programme, which I shall term here the Suhartoist cultural model, merely substitutes Tetum for Indonesian as the neo-colonial language, and not only abolishes Portuguese (= Dutch) but marginalizes all the other vernaculars that make up East Timor's heritage (= the Indonesian vernaculars).

It is certainly wrong to vilify any nation or culture, and the Suhartoist model for East Timor is not criticized here simply because it happens to be a product of Indonesia. What must be criticized about it is that fact that it is incompatible with the cultural reality of East Timor, and is unlikely to function properly here. And this is so chiefly because of the greatly differing histories of Indonesia and East Timor.

The fundamentally opposed tendencies of Portuguese and Dutch colonialism are a well-described theme of world history. What is clear to any observer is that Portuguese and Dutch rule produced very different results in the lands colonized by the two powers. At the risk of simplifying rather complex phenomena, it is broadly true that the Dutch were little inclined (at least on the level of policy) to mix their blood with indigenous peoples. They were generally not interested in imposing their state Calvinism on their subjects. It was not usually part of their plan to make subject peoples learn Dutch (in Indonesia they encouraged the use of Malay and learnt it themselves). Excluding all but a few of the natives from their own culture was a Dutch strategy for maintaining their racial superiority. When the Dutch finally withdrew from Indonesia, their influence of the languages and cultures on the local peoples was still superficial.

In stark contrast, the Portuguese always sought to assimilate the peoples they added to their empire. In Timor, as elsewhere, intermarriage between the two races was common. The Portuguese arrived in the island with the objective-never completed during their rule-of converting the entire population to Catholicism. Although conversion was not forced in Timor (as it had been in Goa and Malacca), most of the local kings accepted baptism, receiving Portuguese names and aristocratic titles. In many local kingdoms the Portuguese flag was kept and worshipped in totem houses. As a result of the Portuguese campaign to spread their language during the second half of the 19th century, Tetum and the other vernaculars became impregnated with Portuguese loanwords, idioms and syntactic structures. Twice at least during the drive to 'civilize' East Timor, the colony was declared to be an overseas province of Portugal, as much a part of the mother country as Lisbon or Coimbra.

Quite unlike the infant Indonesian government, which strove hard to undo a superficial Dutch cultural influence, the Fretilin regime of 1975, while generally critical of Salazarist colonialism, continued to value Portuguese language and culture as long-standing and well-integrated elements of East Timor's national culture. The retention of official Portuguese was even one of the principles of Apodeti, the minority political party working for integration with Indonesia.

Of course in considering the impact of Portuguese colonialism in East Timor one must recognize the negative as well as the positive aspects. Contact with Portugal certainly renewed and strengthened Timorese culture, but the colonial government granted no place to Tetum or the other vernaculars in public life. Portuguese was the sole medium of instruction in the schools, and the syllabus was wholly lusocentric, ignoring Timorese culture and history. It is hardly surprising then that many individuals formed in this system have retained a colonial mentality which manifests itself when they denigrate indigenous languages and institutions and oppose moves to make Tetum an official language. This Portuguese programme of assimilation will be referred to as the 'Salazarist cultural model'.

Although the Indonesian occupation was all in all a negative experience for the people of East Timor, it cannot be doubted that the Occupation was (unintentionally) beneficial for Tetum. Certainly, if the Indonesians had not banned Portuguese, the Church would not have made Tetum its liturgical language. But with the sudden need to celebrate the rites of the Church in Tetum, the clergy had to translate, as well as the missal, portions of the Bible, in order to create a lectionary (epistle and gospel readings). The task of translating all this material made priests aware of the beauty and potential of Tetum as a literary medium. And since it was necessary to render the sacred texts into a dignified idiom, the translators borrowed many words from Tetun-Terik (archaic rural Tetum). This process served to narrow the existing gap between Tetun-Dili and Tetun-Terik, and helped to turn a simple dialect into a literary language. Lay people who cultivated Tetum during the Occupation played a similarly important role in the development of the language. At a time when many Indonesian words were filtering into spoken Tetum, the writers deliberately kept their language free of Indonesian influence and continued to derive new vocabulary from Portuguese and Tetun-Terik.

Although severely repressed under the Indonesians, the Portuguese language did not become extinct as anticipated. This shows that in the local culture Portuguese was not an extraneous element like Dutch in Indonesia, which disappeared from most sectors of society within a decade of Holland's withdrawal.

It is necessary therefore to put the languages used in East Timor into two categories. One must distinguish languages which have long been part of local culture from languages that have only recently become current. In the first category, that of languages that can be classed as truly national, are Tetum, the fourteen other vernaculars, and Portuguese. By contrast Indonesian and English belong to the category of recent foreign languages whose impact on the indigenous languages has not been profound like that of Portuguese.

The movement seeking to abolish Portuguese does not take into account the force that fuelled the national resistance against Indonesia: traditionalism. The Timorese are a people strongly attached to their land and ancient customs. Their ancestors submitted to Portuguese rule because the Europeans interfered little with native institutions, and made few attempts to change indigenous culture. For most Timorese, the influence of Christianity and of the Portuguese language, though subtly pervasive, was indirect. The Suharto regime, on the other hand, made itself odious to the people because of its contempt for their culture and its heavy-handed attempt to sever them from their past.

In my view, the central position of the Portuguese language in East Timorese civilization is beyond any doubt. Simply put, if East Timor wishes to remain connected to its past, it needs to retain Portuguese. If it chooses otherwise, a people with a long memory will be converted into a nation of amnesiacs, and East Timor will suffer the fate of countries that have thrown away the key to their past by depriving their people of knowledge of languages that played major roles in the formation of the national culture.

It may seem axiomatic that full knowledge and appreciation of a nation's past is a prerequisite for the building of a healthy future, but we are living in a highly materialistic age in which the aggressive pursuit of economic power seriously threatens those traditional institutions and values it has not already destroyed. It is therefore important for human beings to remind themselves that economic power which diminishes them spiritually, intellectually and culturally is in reality a form of tyranny.

Materialistic motives seem to have inspired, at least in part, the sudden movement in East Timor to promote English to official status. There is at present a popular tendency to see the English language as the only key to economic prosperity. What is not seen is the considerable threat that English poses to the cultural integrity of East Timor.

No-one can seriously deny the great value to East Timor of English as a second language. English has established itself as the world's international language and is the prime medium of modern technology. Nor should one overlook the claims of English as the vehicle of a great literature and a sophisticated civilization.

I foresee no serious problems if the new government of East Timor simply promotes English as a second language, without any official status, as in Indonesia, Portugal, Japan and so many other countries. Contained in this way, English should not be in a position to undermine the traditional culture of East Timor. If, on the other hand, a future government makes the mistake of putting English in the place of Portuguese, the consequences for posterity will be grave indeed.

Linguists commonly refer to English as a killer, an imperialistic language which in world history has a worse record of driving other languages to extinction than any other. (This linguicidal quality of the language of Shakespeare has nothing to do with anything inherent in its structure, but is a product of the cultures for which English has been a vehicle). In the modern context, the association of English with technological superiority gives it a definite and unfair edge over languages that are vehicles of technologically unsophisticated cultures.

This prestige of English is responsible for the often unwitting arrogance that tends to characterize Anglophones, especially when they come into contact with other languages and cultures. The idea that English is the 'normal' or 'preferable' medium for schooling, radio, television, videos, films, newspapers, magazines and serious books can easily lead to the conviction that other languages are somehow less suited to modern living and should wherever possible give way to English. This problem is greatest in countries with English as an official language, especially when English lords it over indigenous languages.

When speakers of minority and Third World languages are infected with this inferiority complex and cultural cringe, the results are usually disastrous. People thus affected typically become ashamed of their mother tongues, and there is a great temptation not to pass on to their offspring these 'useless relics of past', badges and factors of 'backwardness', especially when their use is positively discouraged by the state. The victims of this process are legion, especially in the United States and Australia. Most indigenous languages have disappeared in the United States outside the Indian Reservations. Of the 250 or so Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia only some 100 survive today, and many of these are on the verge of extinction.

The victims of English are not confined to areas of the New World swamped by white immigrants. In the British Isles two of the five modern Celtic languages, Cornish and Manx, have already disappeared. Welsh is struggling to survive in Wales, and the prospects for Gaelic are grim, not just in Scotland but in independent Ireland, where state attempts to halt and reverse anglicization have been a depressing failure. On the Channel Islands, Norman French is almost extinct, in spite of the proximity of France.

Considering now the case of official Portuguese in East Timor, one can see an immediate advantage for Tetum and the other vernaculars in the fact that Portuguese, having less prestige and 'snob value' than English, will be less able to threaten the country's linguistic order. In countries where Portuguese is an official language, relatively few vernaculars have disappeared because of the prestige of Portuguese. Because of several historico-cultural factors, the Portuguese language has always harmonized better with indigenous languages than English.

For East Timor Portuguese also has the positive advantage that the Tetum lingua franca is not formally very distant from it because of the huge Portuguese element in its sound-system, grammar and vocabulary. Portuguese is not excessively difficult for East Timorese to learn because they already have a partial passive knowledge of it through speaking Tetun-Dili. The same can hardly be said of the relationship between Tetum and English. Even when Timorese (who as traditional polyglots are naturally good linguists) learn to speak English fluently, the quality of their English-especially in pronunciation and grammar-is usually far inferior to the quality of their acquired Portuguese.

It seems clear that Tetum would be a very inferior and endangered partner in any future binomium with English. Tetum's prospects for survival and development are much brighter within a continuing partnership with Portuguese, the natural source of its technical and modern vocabulary. However, the arguments in favour of co-official Portuguese in East Timor are not merely cultural and ecological. Portuguese itself is hardly a useless language in the modern world. Like English, Portuguese is an international language with (including its dialects) some 180 million speakers in Europe (Portugal and Galicia), Africa, Brazil and three small areas of Asia (Goa, Macao and Malacca) as well as East Timor. Though not internationally used as a lingua franca to the extent that English is, Portuguese has more speakers in the world today than Russian, Japanese, German, French or Javanese.

East Timor's distance from other Portuguese-speaking countries is hardly a problem in the age of the jumbo-jet and electronic communications. Moreover the Lusofonia or commonwealth of Portuguese-speaking nations will link East Timor with a greater world community and provide many social, cultural and material benefits and opportunities.

In the economic sphere, Portuguese in East Timor should also be seen as an open door. Most native English-speakers are notoriously bad at mastering other languages, largely for cultural reasons, but also to some extent because English has diverged greatly in structure from the Germanic languages to which it is closely related and from the Latin languages by which it has ben influenced. Whereas English is useful to East Timor for its intrinsic value alone, Portuguese has also the great extrinsic value of being a natural stepping-stone to three other Romance languages to which it is still structurally very close: Spanish, Italian and French.

These languages (especially Spanish and French) have great importance in the world of commerce, and East Timorese who learn to speak them are automatically increasing their employment prospects. They can find work in various sectors, such as commerce and diplomacy, but above all in the tourism industry. If the new government decides to develop ecotourism as a primary national industry, applicants for many jobs in this sector will need to know foreign languages to cater for the needs of overseas visitors. The new government would thus be well advised to prioritize the setting up of a special foreign languages academy offering, for clear vocational purposes, intensive courses in Spanish, Italian and French for students already knowing Portuguese. Courses in-apart from English-German, Russian, Mandarin and Japanese could also be provided.(1)

Practical necessity will oblige the new nation of East Timor to continue using the language that most of their neighbours speak: Indonesian. Of course this language, whose impact on East Timorese society is only recent and superficial, (2) does not merit official status, political considerations apart. But Timorese doing business with Indonesians, and those who go to work and study in Indonesia, will need opportunities to learn the Indonesian language in their own country.

The new government should consider the younger people schooled in Indonesian a valuable human resource, and they should be encouraged to make their contribution to the nation-building process. Indonesian-speaking East Timorese can play a large role in their country's commercial and diplomatic activities in the South-East Asian region.

It has become well known outside Timor that the restoration of official Portuguese has been interpreted as a personal threat by many Indonesian-educated younger people. There is a widespread fear among them that they will not be able to compete socially with other Timorese whose command of Portuguese is good. Their fear of becoming second-class citizens unable to obtain good jobs and positions is perfectly understandable.

This problem is a serious one. Nevertheless, it is also a fact of life that in the work of national reconstruction all citizens will have to make a sacrifice of some kind. If Portuguese is indeed an integral part of the national culture, the youth must make a concerted effort to learn or relearn the language. By the same token, the older generation have an obligation to make all the necessary allowances for non-knowledge of Portuguese among the youth, for example making sure that Tetum alone is used in public meetings whenever non-Portuguese speakers are present. All new documents prepared in Portuguese must be translated into Tetum.

With the help of Portugal and other Lusophone countries, the government should set up special Portuguese 'recovery courses' for all younger adults who have completed their schooling. Similar courses should also be set up and made compulsory in foreign non-Lusophone universities where numbers of East Timorese students are sent to study, for example in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. I would recommend, too, that the new government seek funds to publish as soon as possible modern and comprehensive Tetum-Portuguese and Portuguese-Tetum dictionaries and distribute these free of charge to all the younger people who need them.

It is moreover highly desirable for individuals who come to Timor as Portuguese teachers to make an effort to learn Tetum. Such a tribute to the main language of the people would make it clear to all that the work of restoring the Portuguese language in East Timor has no neo-colonialist ulterior motives.

Appreciating as I do the importance of the Portuguese language as the natural partner of Tetum in East Timor, it is my hope that the new government will implement all the above measures, as well as providing every possible employment opportunity for young people, regardless of the quality of their Portuguese. The task of restoring Portuguese demands great sensitivity and generosity of the older generation, and the patriotic call to learn Portuguese should be issued as an invitation, from compliance with which all East Timorese, not an élite only, will benefit. If, on the other hand, the restoration of Portuguese is pursued in a harsh and inconsiderate manner, the defenders of the language run the very real risk of destroying it by turning the younger generation against an integral element of their heritage.

So far I have spoken at length about Portuguese, English and Indonesian because a small nation like East Timor needs to have one or more supra-regional and international languages to survive in the modern world. Yet though Portuguese has for centuries been an acclimatized language of the island, though Indonesian and English are available as second languages, the language that most East Timorese speak daily is not Portuguese, Indonesian or English.

Inside East Timor Tetum and the other vernaculars play a greater role than Portuguese, English and Indonesian. As the national language, Tetum needs to be given plenty of space in society. It must be used in all schools, in churches, in the public service, in business, in the press, in radio, television and the theatre. Tetum should be given priority in all domestic spheres, with Portuguese and the two second languages used only in areas where Tetum cannot be used, for example when foreign visitors are present and where necessary resources are lacking.

The government must give sufficient prestige to the national language and actively encourage all citizens to use it with confidence. It must sponsor the development of Tetum as a modern language, approving an appropriate system of orthography, publishing official dictionaries and grammars. Writers of useful books and literature in Tetum should be supported and incentivated. A national publishing house should be founded as soon as possible, so that books in Tetum and the other vernaculars can be printed in Timor and sold at low prices. A national foundation to foster the recording and preservation of indigenous oral literature, art, weaving, architecture, music, singing and dancing is another desideratum.

If the national language is promoted in the above ways, no-one will be able to claim that Tetum is a primitive and useless dialect, incapable of holding its own beside Portuguese and other well-developed languages.

Granted that East Timor needs a non-indigenous co-official language and that the only valid candidate is Portuguese, it will still be necessary for the new government to regulate and control the use of Portuguese in the country. If a strict policy for the protection and promotion of Tetum is not enacted, Portuguese is likely to invade areas of social and cultural life that properly belong to the national language. This is a potential danger that will require the utmost vigilance on the part of the state.

In several officially bilingual countries, for example the Philippines, Fiji, Ireland and Malta, the non-indigenous language (in these cases English) prevails in public life. This situation has come into being because the governments concerned have not enacted sufficient legislation to advance the development of the national language and to oblige both citizens and foreign residents to use it in the higher spheres. This could also come about in East Timor if the government of tomorrow fails to create a language policy adequate to the task of protecting the nation's identity. If foreign residents in East Timor find that local people are always willing to speak their language, they are hardly likely to make the effort to learn Tetum. Should this become the general trend, it will quickly lead to cultural domination as in colonial times.

East Timor would do well to follow the example of other governments that have successfully introduced such legislation to bolster a weak national language, for instance Slovakia. The government could, for instance, oblige foreign businesses to place labels in both Tetum and Portuguese on all their products. It could also require the translation of all commercial documents and literature used in East Timor, and prohibit public advertising in English. The subtitling in Tetum of foreign non-Portuguese television programmes and films could also be made compulsory. These measures would attract revenue as well as generate plenty of work for Timorese translators.

The national constitution should also guarantee official protection of all the vernaculars of East Timor apart from Tetum. It should at all costs avoid the policy of ignoring or, worse, repressing linguistic diversity, like those Fascist governments taking their lead from the Jacobin philosophy of the French Revolution. A sound national constitution would recognise with pride that the abundance of languages in East Timor is, far from being a factor of disunity, a national treasure to be preserved and a rich human resource to be cultivated. In an age when respect for the natural environment is a universal value, conservationism should be extended to linguistic species as well, lest the nation be impoverished by the loss of any one of them.

Among the languages to be protected by the state, two of them, Baikenu and Fataluku, should be granted a special statute as vernaculars of regions where Tetum is not yet universally spoken. Given the particular communication problems in these two areas, especially the Ambeno enclave, priority should be given to Baikenu and Fataluku in the production of linguistic resources for the nation.

The same resources will eventually be produced for all the other languages and dialects. Linguists supported by the state will be able to prepare dictionaries, grammars and story-books for each of vernaculars, but in order to give their speakers confidence to read and write them, the mother tongues would need to be taught in the schools.

In concluding this address, I will briefly consider the thorny issue of language in the schools. UNESCO's 1953 resolution on primary education stated that: "the best medium for teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil". In bilingual countries, a common pattern is for children to learn first the alphabet and basic reading and writing in their mother tongue. Then, in the higher primary grades, the study of the second language is introduced.

Unfortunately, there is one great obstacle to implementing such a democratic programme in East Timor: the lack of an adequate primary syllabus in Tetum. Another big challenge is polyglossia: in most districts little children do not speak Tetum when they begin school and would therefore require simple pedagogical materials in their mother tongue, which barely exist in any language other than Tetum.

Even with government support, it will take collaborating linguists and educationalists several years to produce even the most basic syllabus in Tetum, not to speak of the other languages. In the meantime, unless the new state wishes teachers to go on teaching through Indonesian, the only option-given the need for pedagogical resources-is to teach literacy to children (and adults) with Portuguese materials, which are available, abundant and of high quality. Ideally some reading and writing in Tetum should be introduced in the interim within the framework of the Portuguese-medium syllabus. In places where children do not understand Tetum, wide oral use of the vernacular should be made in teaching.

As for the eventual non-Portuguese primary syllabus that I envisage, mother tongues could and indeed should be used as soon as possible in the lower grades, but from the third grade Tetum should become the main medium of instruction, reading and writing. Once the textbooks are available, most subjects-grammar, history, geography, mathematics, natural science, Christian doctrine-should be taught through Tetum in the higher grades of primary school. However, from the third primary grade, Portuguese should be introduced, and taught through its own medium.

The secondary school syllabus needs less language planning, given that all subjects except Tetum grammar and literature, will have to be taught in Portuguese. From the first year of secondary school, students should study English and Indonesian as compulsory subjects. Those with a gift for languages could study one other foreign language, for example French, Spanish, Italian, German or Japanese. For the university, the most appropriate media of instruction would be Portuguese and English. The government should, however, set up a chair of Tetum and a chair of Timorese linguistics to promote study and research in these fields. These two departments would be resource centres and advisory bodies for experts and teachers in the field of education.

In the linguistic programme that I have outlined there is a place for every language that plays a part in the culture of East Timor. A truly inclusive language policy is the answer to counterproductive political campaigns seeking to exclude one language or another. The important thing is to establish correct priorities based on cultural facts, priorities which look to the future but also remember the past.

These, then, are my thoughts, and I now leave it to you, ladies and gentlemen, to discuss the principles, facts and possibilities that I have placed before you. With the help of Almighty God and of the Martyrs of East Timor, I am confident that you will find the way to renew and enrich the culture of your beloved homeland.

(1) In considering the commercial exploitation of Portuguese, members of the East Timorese government could derive great benefit from a study tour of the Republic of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. This small unspoiled nation offers a good model in ecotourism, its principal industry. The Seychelles were formally a British colony until 1976, but the population used English mainly for official purposes. The main cultural language and the language of the Church was French, since the islands had belonged to France before the Napoleonic Wars. Creole French is, however, the vernacular.
At Independence the possibility of abolishing French was mooted, but instead the new government made it co-official with English and Creole and with the development of ecotourism exploited French as a stepping-stone for the teaching of Italian and Spanish, languages spoken (with French) by a large percentage of tourists. Promoting for ecotourism both beautiful natural environment and the colonial French cultural heritage of these islands has ensured the population a healthy economy and plenty of employment possibilities.
In East Timor, the natural beauty of the land, the rich and colourful indigenous culture and the co-existing Portuguese culture-architecture, cuisine, music, manners and charm-are all eminently exploitable as drawcards in promoting East Timor as a tourist destination.

(2) Modern Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is to be distinguished from the Creole Malay (of Ambonese origin, and still spoken in Kupang) that influenced Timorese languages between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Knowledge of Creole Malay had, however, virtually disappeared in Portuguese Timor by the 1870s, and when the Indonesians invaded in 1975, their language was unintelligible to the vast majority of East Timorese.

Original Tetum text

Portuguese translation

Return to main page