Timor-Leste’s Language Policy: The Boulder On The Shoe – Analysis

Timor-Leste has chosen Portuguese as its official language of government, though Tetum remains the other official language. This language policy, a return to its colonial heritage, has future implications for the state’s development and geopolitical relations in the region. (Note: Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta has written a response to this article, which may be found here)

By Victor R Savage

THE CURRENT presidential election in Timor-Leste has brought international visibility to this rather marginalised state within Southeast Asia. The freedom-fighter generation of Timor-Leste has everything to be proud of in these elections. This is one country which testifies that an irredentist movement that fought for independence could eventually create statehood in the 21st century. It also underscores a moment in Indonesian history when the domestic fervour for reformasi was best symbolised not just in political change in Indonesia but in the granting of independence for East Timor as it was then known.

Challenges making Portuguese the official language

Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste

The simmering issue on the ground in Timor-Leste however has less to do with the presidential election. The likely source of future political debate lies in its language policy. The Timor-Leste government has chosen to use Portuguese as its official language of government since 2002 despite the fact that less than five percent of the population spoke the language. According to official sources the government chose Portuguese to safeguard their unique culture and identity, maintain their connections with the former colonial master, Portugal, as well as their privileged ties and friendships with other Portuguese-speaking nations. While the country’s leaders had privately defended keeping the Portuguese language as a matter of heritage, they have also recognised the importance of learning English in schools to survive in a competitive world and to popularise Bahasa Indonesia.

Yet on the ground one gets the feeling that Portuguese has been given priority because it is the language of communication of the political and social elites – in short it is an elitist language in Timor Leste. This language policy has its own challenges.

Firstly, Portuguese is not an international language that will connect the people of Timor-Leste with a globalising world. Besides Portugal, the only Portuguese-speaking heavyweight is Brazil which is thousands of kilometers away. The ability to connect with the rest of the world for trade, tourism and business is likely to be hampered. In Asia, Portuguese is no longer a language of political power that it once was from Goa to Malacca and Macau in the 16th century.

Secondly, Portugal is certainly not a country of economic and political prowess either globally or in the European Union (EU) to warrant the use of its language. Indeed Portugal forms one of the five PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) countries of the EU where the governments are saddled with huge debt. Portugal cannot be expected to lend financial support and advice to the Timor-Leste government. As one Timorese researcher said to me: “Portugal is a poor country, Timor-Leste is poor, and the relationship will make Timor-Leste poorer.” When there are so many more economically developed states in Asia, why does the Timor-Leste government need to reconnect with its former colonial master?

Thirdly, the current language situation in Timor Leste is highly diversified – the people are exposed to essentially four main languages and many more dialects: Tetum, the native language, Bahasa Indonesia which is widely spoken, English and finally Portuguese – a language retained by the older generation Portuguese Eurasians in Timor Leste. One can understand the logic that after having won a bloody war of independence with Indonesia, the government wanted to distance itself from Indonesia. Yet, the reality on the ground begs for a more pragmatic political consideration:

Bahasa Indonesia is already the unofficial lingua franca in the country; Timor-Leste cannot separate itself from its geographical links and geopolitical realities of Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia – accounting for 40 percent of the region’s land area, population and GNP. Many Timor-Leste government officials and educational personnel have graduated from Indonesian universities and technical institutes and estimates show about 5000 students are currently enrolled in Indonesian institutions. Indonesia is also currently a rising economy which Timor-Leste cannot afford to ignore and yet could tap into.

Why not English as the top official language?

If the Timor-Leste government did not want to use Indonesian as its official language, it certainly could have considered English as the official language of priority. This neutral language would be amenable to all citizens and offer far more advantages than Portuguese: i) English is a language of international politics, trade, tourism, and higher education; ii) it is quite widely spoken in the country amongst the informed public and even youths; iii) many students expressed keen interest in learning English rather than Portuguese which they find of no cultural or economic relevance; and iv) if Timor-Leste is interested in joining ASEAN, does it not make more sense to give priority to English which is the operating language of the region? Given that Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore and the Philippines are all English-speaking neighbouring countries, the use of English will certainly give the government economic and political leverage.

It is noteworthy that a private university in Dili, as a protest against the government’s language policy, decided to conduct its classes in Tetum, Bahasa Indonesia and English – leaving out Portuguese.

One might say the Timor-Leste government is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in pursuing the Portuguese language: its biggest English-speaking neighbour Australia has been unfriendly and certainly opportunistic with regard to off-shore oil and gas reserves and its Indonesian neighbour is viewed with apprehension and veiled distrust. Yet language forms the foundation and bedrock of a country – language cannot be changed overnight once set in place.

For a fledgling country with limited resources and a low level of development, Timor Leste needs to consider pragmatic, long term and viable educational programmes. The government’s belief that the people of Timor Leste can pursue a multiple-language educational programme (Tetum, Portuguese, English, Bahasa Indonesia) seems flawed since there are few examples of successful bi-lingual much less multi-lingual national programmes regionally or globally. While pre-independence East Timor might have been for Indonesia’s former Foreign Minister Ali Alatas the “pebble in the shoe”, the Portuguese language might be a veritable boulder on the shoe for independent Timor-Leste’s future progress and development.

Victor R Savage is an Associate Professor in Geography at the National University of Singapore and Honorary Vice-President of the Commonwealth Geographical Bureau. This article, specially written for RSIS Commentaries, reflects his personal views.

RSIS

RSIS

RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries.

18 thoughts on “Timor-Leste’s Language Policy: The Boulder On The Shoe – Analysis

  • April 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm
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    A patronising and insulting piece, which reduces the value of learning languages to purely economic terms, and assumes that what is right for Singapore is right for other countries.

    1. The name of the official language of Indonesia in English is Indonesian, not ‘Bahasa Indonesia’.

    2. There are not many more ‘dialects’ in Timor-Leste, there are many more languages – however, this does not preclude speakers from mastering other languages, including Indonesian and English.

    3. Geographical distance is not the stumbling block it once was – Brazil may be far away from Timor Leste, but so is Britain, a country where thousands of Portuguese passport-holding Timorese live and work, and while few speak Portuguese, not many speak English either.

    4. The English language is not an economic panacea – Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and indeed, the Philippines, are hardly models of economic development. Similarly, levels of development in Indonesia are varied – the Indonesian half of Timor is one of the poorest regions in that country.

    5. The reference to Portuguese-speaking Timorese as ‘Eurasians’ is inaccurate and offensive – the ex-guerillas and Catholic Church’s bishops and clergy, who support the use of the Portuguese language are Timorese with no European ancestry.

    6. The fact that there are few successful bilingual or multilingual national educational programmes does not meant that there are none – Luxembourg, a small country with only 500 000 people, has a multilingual education system, and it is per capita one of the wealthiest countries in Western Europe. Admittedly Luxembourg is not representative of the whole of Europe, but nor is Singapore representative of the whole of Asia.

    7. While the commercial value of the Portuguese language IN Asia may be limited, that does not mean that it is of limited value FOR countries in Asia. China is investing in the teaching of Portuguese in its universities because of trade with Brazil and Angola, and has a forum for cooperation with Portuguese-speaking countries, including Timor Leste!

    8. If giving official status to a language is the only way of guaranteeing that it is spoken, then why has English only ever been spoken by a minority of people in Hong Kong, even under British rule, whereas it is spoken by the overwhelming majority of people in the Netherlands and the Scandinavian languages?

    Instead of lecturing a polyglot people like the Timorese about the merits of multilingualism, perhaps the author might like to address the shortcomings of language education in Singapore.

    How many languages do most Singaporeans learn at school? Only two, English and their mother tongue. More significantly, how many Singaporeans can understand the Malay words to their national anthem, except for Malays? Even Timorese who cannot speak Portuguese can understand at least some of the Portuguese words of their national anthem, because of the large number of Portuguese words in Tetum.

    Schools in Singapore should be teaching a far greater variety of Asian languages, such as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Arabic and Hindi – while universities should be teaching a greater variety of Western ones, like Latin American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, rather than just French and German, as now.

    The sad thing about Singapore is that many Singaporeans are not even bilingual in English and an Asian language, they are now monoglot English speakers.

    There is no denying that this is a divisive issue, because people of different generations were educated not only in different languages but in different belief systems. Neither Salazar’s Portugal nor Suharto’s Indonesia were particuarly enlightened or tolerant. (The Porutuguese looked down on indigenous languages in their empire, despite their missionaries having used them, while Indonesia effectively banned the use of Chinese up to the time of Reformasi, despite its economic usefulness.)

    Similarly, the fact that this is a developing country means that any change in language is dificult – but it took Singapore decades to change over to English from Chinese in most schools and universities, in the face of huge resistance, resentment and hostility.

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    • April 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm
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      Thank you for expressing so clearly some important ideas about Portuguese language and for correcting an article full of imprecise information. Reducing the language problem to economic arguments is denying an important culture, history and literature. The most important east Timorese writers (poets as well as novelists) write in Portuguese and the east Timorese literature is emerging.

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  • April 14, 2012 at 5:01 pm
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    You failed to mention, the major reason for the inclination for Portuguese over English is that Portugal has, since the independence of East Timor, been that nations biggest political supporter, while English speaking nations turned their back on East Timor. Also, you failed to mention that after independence, Australia and the US sold the East Timorese up the river and in essence handed the nation over to the Muslim, anti-Christian Indonesians who systematically raped, pillaged and murdered a large portion of the population. Today, it is suspected that the only reason for Australian and American interest in East Timor is directly connected with the finding of large oil reserves in that country. This is not nothing in the minds of the East Timorese, but possibly an inconvenience to the writer.

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  • April 14, 2012 at 10:02 pm
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    yes, agree with Ken, it is patronising and insulting; and ignorant on Timor’s history – the root of the anglophone obsession with this issue seems to lie in the basic laziness of we anglophones to appreciate and learn the languages of others

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  • April 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm
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    I quite agree with Ken Westmoreland. Mr. Savage, a singaporean, denotes a complete ignorance of the etnography, antropology and history of the Timorese people and the everlasting relationship with the Portuguese. They are different from the indonesian, as a Nation, only because that common history with Portugal and because they are catholic. That is the reason becausa they are an independent country!
    Let them decide their policy on language.

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  • April 16, 2012 at 6:53 am
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    The article’s most astonishing claim is that English is a “neutral” language. Actually, in East Timor Portuguese is the most neutral language, especially in the Eastern regions where Tetum is treated with suspicion by many. Excellent reply by Ken Westmoreland. (I agree; what’s this “Bahasa Indonesia” nonsense? You may as well call German “Deutsche Sprache” and Japanese “Nihonguo”)

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  • April 16, 2012 at 9:45 pm
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    Indonesian the unofficial lingua franca? Have you actually been to Timor Leste before or are you merely assuming this?

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  • April 17, 2012 at 5:05 am
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    I quite agree with Jose Barbara Branco – let the Timorese PEOPLE – not the 6% elite government officials – decide what language they want to speak. Everybody who has spent any time talking to the people already knows the answer – the chosen language certainly would NOT be Portuguese.

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    • April 17, 2012 at 9:47 am
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      Mr Kirby, I have spent time in East Timor, BEFORE and AFTER the occupation, and what you are saying is a lie. The chosen language would most definitely be Portuguese. Have you actually been ANYWHERE in that island except thne expat bars in Díli? At various past and present times?

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      • April 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm
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        As a Timorese I prefer Tetum but I don’t mind learning other languages.

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  • April 17, 2012 at 7:48 am
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    I agree with Ken on this. Another point to be remembered is the solidarity between the Timorese and Lusophone Africa, which includes fast-growing economies such as Angola and Mozambique. The promotion of linkages among these countries and Brazil has much to offer. I should also point out that Victor Savage’s political masters have been investing part of his taxes into the Brazilian economy via Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, Singapore Airlines recently started flying to Sao Paulo, and the Temasek Foundation Centre for Trade & Negotiations at RSIS is conducting a study on the potential for increased Singapore-Brazil trade. Timor’s use of Portuguese will promote trade and investment linkages with Brazil and Southern Africa, two of the most dynamic emerging market regions in the world. Unfortunately most Singaporeans have little sense of history or culture, so Ken’s most excellent points will have little resonance unless converted into $ terms, the only language that is understood there. @Steve Kirby, valid point you make but using Tetum alone is of little use internationally and would only serve to reinforce the country’s isolation. Just look at what the use of Malay officially has done to Malaysia over the decades.

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  • April 18, 2012 at 2:57 am
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    Mr Savage, first you have to go to Timor-Leste and learn about its history, culture, literature, etc and most of all find out the real ties that unite Timor-Leste to Portugal.
    Then you can write or say any rubbish that comes to your mind.

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  • April 18, 2012 at 4:32 am
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    Dear Readers,

    Timor-Leste is very rich in natural resources (most western countries are after), culture, history and languages. It’s not surprised me why many people are very much interested about Timor-Leste. We are unique in the ASEAN and the Asia Pacific Region. As far as language is concerned leave Timorese to decide and they have decided to adopt 2 national languages Portuguese and Tetum. In the meantime Timorese also speak English and Bahasa Indonesia.

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  • April 20, 2012 at 10:01 am
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    Ken said “China is investing in the teaching of Portuguese in its universities because of trade with Brazil and Angola, and has a forum for cooperation with Portuguese-speaking countries, including Timor Leste!”
    Let me add that since the end of the Indonesian occupation China has always appointed Chinese Ambassadors to East Timor who are fluent in the Portuguese language.

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  • April 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm
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    Who gave up their right to speak at UN Gen Assembly so Timor can be be represented and speak against the invasion? A poor African state who speaks portuguese!!!

    What was the language used during Timor´s clandestine period? It was portuguese!!! Mind you none of the FALINTIL commanders are portuguese. And when it was needed to speal english, none of them have any trouble to learn and use it.

    We have a centuries of historical ties to the portuguese speaking countries. They have embraced us without questioning nor undermining us in any way shape or form, regardless of past and current their economical or political situation.

    Please do not insult us in such way.

    I speak my mother toungue, both my neighbours language – Indonesian and English – and also speak portuguese as it is my oficial language.

    I am not an elite. Im only 33 years old who picks up all the languages that comes to Timor as needed to be learn about the world.

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    • April 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm
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      “What was the language used during Timor´s clandestine period? It was portuguese!!!” It was not only Portuguese but also Tetum as well as other national languages.

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  • April 21, 2012 at 5:33 am
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    ignorant. insulting. despicable. ordered by who? Viva a língua portuguesa e os povos que falam português.

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  • April 22, 2012 at 11:31 am
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    Let me recall all of you that if it is a solely economic perspective that should be given to foreign relations, then one must be reminded that if it wasn’t for Portugal and the creation of the Timor Gap in 1968, the Timorese could not be negotiating ANYTHING with the Australians in what concerns the Sea of Timor oil and gas reserves.

    Reply

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