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East Timor: Building One Country Out of Many Languages

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

On November 28, 1975, Timor Leste unilaterally proclaimed its independence, after nearly four centuries of Portuguese colonization. Though the declaration was read in Portuguese, only a few days after, Indonesia invaded the country and the use of that same language would be forbidden for the twenty four years that the occupation lasted (1975-1999).

When East Timor became an independent country in 2002, both the Tetum and Portuguese languages were chosen as official for the newborn country. Nevertheless, the number of national languages is up to 16, and dozens of other dialects are used on a daily basis by Timorese citizens.

Idiom(s) of identity

Hau nia lian, hau nia rain (My language my homeland). Photo by Sapo Noticias Timor Leste (public domain).

Hau nia lian, hau nia rain (My language my homeland). Photo by Sapo Noticias Timor Leste (public domain).

In practice, Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor, is the most widely spoken throughout the territory. On the other hand, “Portuguese is not the language of unity, but it is the language of identity”, said Mari Alkatiri, the leader of Fretilin (the opposition party), in an article [pt] from 2007 by the Portuguese journalist Paulo Moura, republished on the blog Ciberdúvidas da Língua Portuguesa (Cyberdoubts of Portuguese Language).

Moura further explains why after the independence there is an “overwhelming majority of the population” that does not speak Portuguese:

Aprendeu bahasa Indonésia e inglês como segunda língua e fala tétum em casa, além de alguma outra língua timorense, como o fataluco ou o baiqueno. É a chamada geração “Tim-Tim”, do nome Timor-Timur, que os indonésios davam à sua 27.ª província. Muitos estudaram na Indonésia ou na Austrália, e é difícil explicar-lhes, hoje, a importância do português. Pior ainda, como vêem que as elites políticas, privilegiadas, falam português, e como lhes é vedado o acesso aos empregos na administração pública, por não falarem a língua agora oficial, estes jovens criaram alguma hostilidade em relação a Portugal e à língua portuguesa.

They learned Bahasa Indonesia and English as second languages and they speak Tetum at home, besides any other Timorese language, as Fataluku or Baikeno. It is the so-called “Tim-Tim” generation, from the name Timor-Timur, that Indonesians called their 27th province. Many have studied in Indonesia or in Australia, and it is difficult to explain to them, nowadays, the importance of Portuguese. Even worse, as they see that the privileged political elites speak Portuguese, and as their access to employment in the public administration is barred because they don't speak the now official language, these youngsters have developed some hostility towards Portugal and Portuguese language.

The World Bank's 2011 report on the progress of the country over the last decade illustrates that “Portuguese was spoken by only 5 percent of the population” and adds that “by 2009, more than 70 percent of students tested at the end of the first grade could not read a single word of a simple text in Portuguese. This is a dismal record after 10 years of efforts (…). A full cohort of the population may be functionally illiterate.”

Online documentation of languages

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, there are six Timorese languages threatened by extinction.

Languages of East Timor. Map from the website Fataluku Language Project.

Languages of East Timor. Map from the website Fataluku Language Project.

In the scale provided, Adabe (from the island of Atauro), Habu (from the Manatuto district), and Kairiu-Midiki and Naueti (from the Viqueque district), are considered vulnerable, as “most children from the areas speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains”, such as home and traditional life.

One level above is Waima'a, considered critically endangered – “children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home”. On the northeast tip of the island, Maku'a language, which according to the Atlas had only 50 speakers in 1981, is critically endangered and it may even have become extinct. There has had only been one booklet ever published in this language.

Some of the languages of East Timor however have been making their way into new media and online platforms, which may support their continuity.

Such is the case of Fataluku, a Papuan language spoken by 35,000 people in the eastern most district of Timor, which has been quite well documented on the websites Fataluku Language Project and Fataluku Community. A group of young artists from the region of Lospalos have been using it in their musical and performative works:

A research project for language documentation from the University of Hawai, has promoted several Timorese languages with the help of exchange students such as Osoroa and Fatumaka dialects of Makasae – the “major language in the eastern part of Timor-Leste” – as well as Waima'a, Fataluku, Mambae and Tokodede. The latter has been occasionally used by the Portuguese linguist and translator João Paulo Esperança on his blog Hanoin Oin-oin (Diverse thoughts) [tet].

An East Timorese girl speaking (from clockwise) Bunak, Tetum, Fataluku and Portuguese. Translation: "In Bunak/Tetum/Fataluku/Portuguese, we say: I am in Dili. I have some money. I do not have any money." Image by Joao Paulo Esperança (public domain).

An East Timorese girl speaking (from clockwise) Bunak, Tetum, Fataluku and Portuguese. Translation: "In Bunak/Tetum/Fataluku/Portuguese, we say: I am in Dili. I have some money. I do not have any money." Image by Joao Paulo Esperança (public domain).

Another blogger in under-represented languages is Abe Barreto Soares, who was interviewed for Global Voices in 2009, and besides writing in English, Tetum, and Bahasa Indonesia, has also kept a poetry blog in the Galole laguage from the Manatuto district called Limusan.

A bit further to the South, Idaté language is featured on the blog of Ildefonso Pereira. Facebook has also been used for communicating in Timorese languages, as for instance this group in Naueti.

Last year a proposal was made to use mother tongues first in the national educational program, as this short film entitled Lian Inan (Mother Tongue) [tet] points out, highlighting “the importance of a child's first language in helping them to learn to read and write, to respect the culture of their parents and community, and to become fluent earlier in the official languages of Timor-Leste”:

Rising Voices – the outreach project of Global Voices – is hosting an online dialogue called “Using Citizen Media Tools to Promote Under-Represented Languages” together with New Tactics and Indigenous Tweets. All practitioners from Timor Leste who are venturing into the world of citizen media to promote online communication using under-represented languages are welcome to share their strategies, successes and challenges in the online forum.

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

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