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East Timor Grapples With Languages

May 15, 2002

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DILI, East Timor (AP) _ Children in East Timor are having trouble getting their tongues around their new official language. After years of speaking Indonesian, they now are having to learn Portuguese, the language of the territory’s former rulers.

``It is too difficult for me. There are so many new words to remember,″ 15-year-old Sonia da Costa said in fluent Indonesian, the language of the country’s most recent occupying power.

After months of sometimes angry debate, the former Portuguese colony decided to make Portuguese one of its national languages _ to be used in Parliament, in the official media and in schools _ when it gains independence Monday after 24 years of often brutal Indonesian rule.

Also recognized as a national tongue will be the most widely spoken indigenous language, Tetum, which is related to native languages spoken on many islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii.

East Timor has always been a tower of Babel with about a dozen indigenous languages. But more than four centuries of foreign rule, and nearly three years of administration by the United Nations, have further complicated its linguistic landscape.

The country’s fledgling newspapers use four languages _ English, Indonesian, Portuguese and Tetum _ often side-by-side on the same page.

Many people, especially younger ones who have had no exposure to Portuguese, are angry with the decision that they say isolates them.

Only around 10 percent of the country’s 800,000 people speak Portuguese. Almost all of these are over 40.

Experts have also questioned the policy, which they say is based more on political and sentimental considerations than pragmatic ones.

East Timor’s current leaders decided on Portuguese because of an emotional attachment to the language, which they used during the country’s resistance to Indonesian rule.

The generation feels indebted to Portugal and Portuguese-speaking countries like Angola and Mozambique for supporting East Timor’s independence struggle.

President-elect Xanana Gusmao has said that speaking Portuguese is essential for East Timor’s national identity. Portugal has sent over 150 teachers to spread its mother tongue. Besides children, they are instructing teachers, hospital workers and members of the security forces.

``This for me is crazy,″ said legislator Jose Lobatto. ``They (East Timor’s leaders) are in a minority. They are trying to force education in Portuguese. It’s too much for the children.″

Lobatto is concerned that Tetum, which as yet lacks a standardized written form, will lose out to Portuguese.

University students, worried that not speaking Portuguese will bar them from government jobs, say English would have been a more sensible choice for a national language.

They point to Singapore, which became one of Asia’s most prosperous nations after successfully adopting English as the national tongue.

``What good is Portuguese to anyone?″ said Hipolita Da Costa. ``No one speaks it.″

Tetum is already the most widely used language in the parliament, and some linguists say Tetum stands to benefit from the promotion of Portuguese because it shares some of its vocabulary and grammar.

East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri said the government would continue to support Tetum. ``For sure, Tetum is going to be promoted. There is no doubt,″ he said.

In an acknowledgment of the complexity of the issue, English and Indonesian have been designated as ``working languages″ in the new constitution.

Many say Indonesian would have been a more practical choice for a national language, at least for the next 10 to 15 years.

East Timor’s current political leaders regard it as a symbol of Jakarta’s unpopular rule.

However, around 60 percent of East Timorese, including almost all the younger generation, can speak, read and write it. There are plenty of school textbooks in Indonesian.

Lawyers, prosecutors and judges in East Timor have all studied in Indonesia and say they will be using the language for at least 15 years. The courts still use a modified version of Indonesian law.

``Why throw this all overboard?″ said Dr. Ulrich Kratz from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. ``Indonesian has shown its ability. It makes more sense to use it.″

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