Current Language Issues in East Timor
Text of a public lecture given at the University of Adelaide, 29 March, 2000.
By Dr Geoffrey Hull.
During the quarter century when the Australian government-de facto or de jure-recognized Indonesia's illegal occupation of East Timor, a whole mythology of denial was elaborated by the Canberra bureaucracies and collaborating academics to justify our acquiescence. The general pro-Jakarta line was to characterize Timorese resistance to integration as perverse and absurd. East Timor was too small to be a viable sovereign state. Indonesian rule in East Timor was basically well-intentioned and would in the long run benefit the local population. Only a minority of Timorese were opposed to Indonesian rule. The baselessness of these three official lines has now been exposed and requires no further comment here.
But one dogma of the mythology of denial has not yet been satisfactorily refuted and its influence continues to bedevil relations between East Timorese and Australians. I refer to the notion that whatever their tendencies towards political separatism, the East Timorese are basically an Indonesian people, that is to say, they are no different culturally from the West Timorese and inhabitants of surrounding islands who have happily embraced an Indonesian national identity.
For Australians influenced by this view of East Timor, Jakarta's imposition of Bahasa Indonesia as the official language of the so-called 'twenty-seventh province' seemed both natural and logical. Indonesian was, after all, related to most of the territory's languages. Many foreigners even supposed that Tetum, the most widely spoken vernacular, was so closely akin to Indonesian that the two languages must be mutually intelligible. In any case, since East Timor was part of a wider region where Indonesian was the lingua franca, its imposition in the former Portuguese territory could hardly be faulted on practical grounds.
So when the Conselho Nacional da Resistência Timorense or CNRT announced recently that the official language of independent East Timor will be Portuguese, there was a range of negative reactions in Australia, from puzzlement and incomprehension to irritation and scorn. East Timor has its own lingua franca, Tetum: why was this language not declared the official one? What was wrong with keeping official Indonesian, the language of the region and the one in which a whole generation of East Timorese had been educated? Why not indeed adopt English as the official language, given the proximity of Australia and the Australian role in the liberation and reconstruction of the nation; not to mention the enormous usefulness of English as the international language?
And of all the languages to declare official, why Portuguese? East Timor was a Portuguese territory before 1975, but wasn't Portuguese merely an imposed European language spoken by white administrators, missionaries and a minority of the indigenous population. Genetically wasn't Portuguese completely unrelated to Tetum and the other vernaculars, and therefore difficult for Timorese to learn? And after twenty-four years of Indonesian domination, hadn't Portuguese been largely forgotten? Wasn't its sudden revival not only anachronistic but dangerously impractical?
The anti-Portuguese arguments go on and on. Portugal and the Lusophone countries of Africa are very far from East Timor, and Portuguese influence is now declining in Macao as it has declined in Goa. The younger generation are dissatisfied by this irresponsible act of the CNRT gerontocracy; they want nothing to do with Portuguese, and would prefer English as an official language alongside the native Tetum. So why on earth have Portuguese as the official language of East Timor?
Why indeed. The fact is that those in Australia or elsewhere who question the propriety and wisdom of the CNRT's decision display a profound ignorance of East Timorese ethnology and culture. It is also a cause for national shame that this ignorance of the role of the Portuguese in the formation of the East Timorese national identity is yet another manifestation of a Lusophobe (or anti-Portuguese) tradition in this country. The Lusophobe tradition has not only soured relations between Australia and Portugal, but has exacerbated the problems of East Timor.
You don't have to go far to find evidence of Lusophobia in this country. The Australian press has been full of it for years. Even those journalists who stood up for East Timor's right to freedom couldn't resist the temptation to remind their readers that Portugal was supposedly the worst colonizer in the world and that after 400 years of Portuguese rule the territory was in a state of appalling backwardness and neglect in 1975. The country invaded by Indonesia has been constantly and erroneously described as a Portuguese 'colony'. And one unconscious but sure manifestation of Lusophobia was shown last year in practically every Australian newspaper report on the Timor crisis: I refer to the constant misspelling and distortion of the Portuguese names of the East Timorese. Perhaps our Anglocentric journalists thought Portuguese such an obscure and insignificant language, why bother to ask people how they spelt their names before publishing articles? Or maybe they didn't even know that these names were Portuguese but assumed them to be outlandish native ones that could be transliterated any old way for Australian readers.
If we are to be good and respectful neighbours to East Timor, it's time for a bit of national re-education, from the Canberra ministries and the universities down. From a position of ignorance it's hardly wise for anglocentric Australians to pontificate about what the Timor leadership should or should not be doing as it plans the nation's culture. Let's look at a few facts. The first of them concerns Portugal's contribution to the East Timorese national identity.
Between 1976 and 1999 the reluctance of the East Timorese to be integrated into the Indonesian Republic was a major thorn in the side of the Suharto regime. Jakarta found it difficult to understand this spirit of resistance when it considered the Indonesian patriotism of West Timor and nearby Catholic and formerly-Portuguese Flores. Of course this strong anti-Indonesian feeling in East Timor was due in large part to memories of the genocidal invasion and conquest, harsh military rule and the continuing human rights abuses. But if the East Timorese stood out in their region because of their will to nationhood, it was because one particular component of their ethnicity set them apart as much from their immediate neighbours as from their Javanese overlords. This all-important component was the Portuguese connection.
Without the Portuguese connection there would have been no aspirations to nationhood in East Timor. It was the Portuguese imprint that made the East Timorese a unique people, distinct from all those around them. It is quite wrong to consider the East Timorese an indigenous people colonized for a time by a foreign, European power but suffering no significant change to their way and life and identity. The Portuguese presence in Timor, beginning in the sixteenth century, can in no way be likened to waves washing over rocks during high tide and then ebbing away, leaving the rocks uneroded and free to dry in the sun.
Decolonization in East Timor was not a simple matter of expelling from the land foreign elements and influences that had never been more than superficial. Not only was the impact of Portuguese colonialism on East Timorese society deep, but it had transformed a indigenous culture into a hybrid one, one so complex that is is now impossible to separate native and European elements without destroying the fabric of the culture itself and shattering the common ethnic consciousness.
As well as giving the East Timorese their modern ethnic identity, Portugal's rule gave them social unity. Before the coming of the Portuguese, Timor had neither political nor cultural unity. As for language, Timor is one of those parts of the world that may be described as a linguist's paradise or hell, depending on his appetite for hard work. In the demographic history of pre-colonial Timor three great migratory movements are significant: (1) the arrival of Papuans from the Bomberai Peninsula of New Guinea around 2000 BC, which introduced the ancestors of the modern Fataluku, Maklere, Makasae and Bunak languages; (2) the arrival of invaders from the Muna, Buton and Tukang Besi region of South-Eastern Celebes about one thousand years ago: the bearers of Austronesian speech, that is of Tetum and its ten sister languages [Kawaimina (= Kairui, Waimaha, Midiki, Naueti), Galoli, Idalaka (= Idaté and Lakalei), Mambai, Kemak, Tokodede and Dawan-Baikenu]; and (3) the domination of Ambon from about the 12th century, which brought significant Moluccan influences in language and culture. By the sixteenth century the present linguistic situation in East Timor had already crystallized, i.e. a small territory speaking fifteen distinct languages and numerous dialects.
In this Tower-of-Babel situation only one vernacular was superior in distribution and number of speakers to the others: the Tetum language of the Belu tribe, who had founded, in the fourteenth century, the Kingdom of Wehali, which united much of central Timor under its rule.
The most significant factor in the prehistory of Timor was its long isolation from the new currents of civilization transforming human life in South East Asia and the Malay archipelago to the west. Timor remained outside the sphere of Indian influence that brought the Hindu religion and civilization to Indonesia from the second century A.D. Except as a trading-base for the acquisition of sandalwood, Timor was also outside the Javanese Majapahit Empire that ruled Sumbawa, Sumba and Flores between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Then, when Islam was spread through Indonesia by Moslem traders from the fourteenth century, Timor was untouched by this new faith.
Before the Portuguese the only foreign influence to have any impact was that of the merchants from Java, Macassar and the Moluccas, who visited Timor in search of sandalwood and beeswax. These traders spoke Malay and they were responsible for introducing many Malay words into the Timorese languages. And so it was not merely the Portuguese presence, but Timor's exclusion from mainstream Indonesian civilization in the pre-colonial period that made for the island's sense of ethnic separateness from South-East Asia.
Indeed, there are many good grounds, geographical, botanical, zoological and anthropological, for not considering Timor part of South-East Asia at all, but rather as an integral part of Oceania, that vast zone that embraces New Guinea and the islands of the Pacific. Like Timor and the chain of islands to the east, New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia were all, in pre-colonial times, bastions of animism outside the orbit of Asiatic Hinduism and Islam. In human physiognomy, too, Timor is a region where the Mongoloid Malay race meets and is absorbed by the older Melanesian race. It was not without reason that the Portuguese considered East Timor an overseas territory of Oceania, not of Asia.
For all these reasons Portuguese Timor had little chance of developing cultural forms compatible with those of the surrounding Dutch East Indies, whose character was predominantly Asiatic, except in Western New Guinea. East Timor's sense of separateness increased when it suddenly found itself the only remaining of Portugal's once numerous possessions in Indonesia. In 1859 the Portuguese sold the eastern tip of Flores, and the small islands of Solor, Lomblen, Adonara and Alor to the Dutch, and these areas were all successfully integrated into the Dutch East Indies. From that time forward Portugal compensated for its territorial losses in Indonesia by consolidating its influence in East Timor.
Before the second half of the nineteenth century the Portuguese hold on the territory had been tenuous, to say the least. In the first phase of colonialism Portugal had been able to rule Timor only indirectly, through local kings who had converted to Catholicism, been made peers of the KIngdom of Portugal, and adopted Portuguese surnames. Lisbon also attempted to rule the island through a class of mixed-blood or Mestiço administrators known as Topasses or 'Black Portuguese'. In spite of their expressions of loyalty to the Portuguese crown, so fiercely independent were the Topasses, that the Portuguese were not able to instal a European governor on the island until 1703.
At the same time, the Timorese nobility's sense of Portuguese identity prevented the Dutch from gaining control of the whole island: it was only in 1651 that the Dutch captured part of West Timor. Lifau, the capital of Portuguese Timor (today in the Oecusse-Ambeno enclave), was now surrounded by Dutch territory, and over a century later, in 1769, the European governor, unable to withstand the constant rebellions of the Black Portuguese, moved his headquarters east to the more secure location of Díli. Although the Portuguese presence was thus intensified in the east, little was done either to spread Christianity or to teach Portuguese to the Timorese until 1874, when the colony was finally opened up to Catholic missionaries after decades exclusion by an anti-clerical government in Lisbon.
And so it was only in the last quarter of the nineteeth century that the religion of the Portuguese began to take root among the East Timorese masses. One might expect that the advance of Christianity would have been accompanied by the spreading of Portuguese as the medium of evangelization and European-style civilization. In Brazil and Portugal's half-dozen African colonies this had always been the case, but not in Timor. In Timor the Portuguese language was so little known that the missionaries had no option but to fall back on the one vehicle that could guarantee the propagation of Christianity: the Tetum language.
In the first phase of Portuguese rule, the European and Mestiço administrators had used Tetum, the most widely spoken language, as their medium of communication with the various tribes of the island. Since Tetum was for them an acquired language, the Portuguese-speakers naturally tended to simplify it for use as a rough contact language or lingua franca. They also injected into it many Portuguese words that became an indispensable part of the Tetum vocabulary.
This simplified, europeanized form of Tetum became known as tétum-praça or 'town Tetum', to distinguish it from the more authentic form of the language spoken in the countryside around Atambua, Balibó, Suai, Soibada and Viqueque. After the urbanization of Díli in the mid eighteenth century, the lingua franca quickly established itself as the vernacular of the new capital, completely ousting the original local language, Mambai.
It was this form of Tetum, then, that the Catholic missionaries later spread throughout the colony, and so closely was Tetum-Praça linked with Christianity that it was dubbed a língua dos baptizados "the language of the baptized." Tetum-Praça was also used by the colonial officials who were now being sent out directly from Portugal, but since few of these stayed long enough in Timor to master the language, it was the Catholic clergy, priests and nuns, as well as the native catechists they trained, who really ensured the spread of Tetum.
In the meantime, the population of Díli grew and the mixed-blood Mestiço class also increased though frequent marriages and liaisons between male colonial officials and Timorese women. The arrival of Indian immigrants from Goa, and Chinese merchants and labourers, some from Portuguese Macao, introduced new strains into the population. The colonial government even settled in Timor numbers of African soldiers from Angola and Mozambique brought in to crush a string of native rebellions. All these demographic trends combined to make the East Timorese population increasingly distinct and tied by bonds of culture and blood to the peoples of the Portuguese Empire.
And all the while Tetum-Praça continued to spread, so that by 1970 at least two thirds of the population were bilingual, speaking their local language and the lingua franca. Borrowing hundreds of new words from Tetum drew the local languages closer together. The expansion of Tetum-Praça in modern times has been closely associated with the spread of Portuguese itself. Before the 1870s the most important foreign language in Díli was not Portuguese but Bazaar Malay. However, this situation changed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when Portuguese completely replaced Malay in commercial life. Tetum now stopped borrowing new words from Malay, and even greater numbers of Portuguese forms flooded into the language.
For the colonial administrators Tetum-Praça was a convenient utility, but they had no intention of promoting it as a written language, let alone as an instrument of popular instruction. In the few schools operating in the colony, the sole language of instruction was Portuguese. Reading and writing in colonial Timor meant learning Portuguese. Education was largely in the hands of the Church, and Catholic teachers did not dissent from this policy of outright lusification.
Thus, thoughout the period of Portuguese rule, nothing was done to raise Tetum-Praça to the status of a literary language in its natural domain. Its exclusion from the literary and educational spheres was understandable enough in the heyday of European colonialism. All the great Western powers had done their best to suppress, marginalize or prevent the development of indigenous languages in their overseas colonies, so as to guarantee the supremacy of English, French, Spanish, Dutch and so on.
But after the Second World War there had been a change of heart, at least in the territories being decolonized by Britain, the United States and Holland. The late 1940s saw the revival or the birth of modern post-colonial literary languages like Tagalog in the Philippines, Tongan and Samoan in Polynesia, Hindi in India, Swahili in East Africa, and Malay, now renamed Bahasa Indonesia, in the Dutch East Indies. In spite of their negative political associations, the former colonial languages retained an important place in the culture of these emerging nations because of their undoubted usefulness as media of communication with a wider world.
Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s most of the former European colonies achieved full independence, and most of them became officially bilingual. Even in countries like Indonesia, where the former colonial language lost its official status-in this case Dutch-, it continued to play some role in the social and intellectual life of the new nation. Thus popular progress was achieved, but continuity with the recent past was also maintained.
But a rather different situation obtained in the French and Portuguese colonies, where the European rulers were much more reluctant to relinquish control than their Dutch, British and American counterparts. Indeed, the French and Portuguese had good reasons -apart from the obvious economic ones-to want to hold on to their overseas empires.
At this point we need to consider the philosophical differences between English and Dutch imperialism on the one hand, and Portuguese, Spanish and French imperialism on the other. The Catholic colonial powers had from the first a strong sense of their so-called 'civilizing mission'. Certainly, the Catholic powers were avid for material gain from the lands and peoples they conquered, but they were also driven by their sense of duty to bring the pagans of foreign lands into the fold of the Church and into what they considered the superior civilization of Europe. Even with the decline of religious fervour after the eighteenth century, the French, Spanish and Portuguese remained as convinced as ever of the need to assimilate their overseas subjects.
By contrast, the more commercially minded and pragmatic Protestant powers had a less systematic approach to colonialism. The British and Dutch set out in the first place to trade and to exploit; thoughts of missionary activity came only later. Calvinistic Protestants were less interested than the Catholics in culturally assimilating their subjects and they tended to interfere less with local religions and traditions. Socially, too, they were more inclined to keep apart from the 'natives', whereas in the Catholic colonies intermarriage was the order of the day.
We can now understand why, when the former African colonies of France gained full independence in the 1950s and 1960s, they remained culturally tied to Paris. In all these modern states, with the sole exceptions of Madagascar, Rwanda and Burundi, which are officially bilingual, French is the only official language and the dominant medium of education. Why, you might ask, have the free governments of, say, Senegal or the Ivory Coast neglected to cultivate their mother tongues? The answer is because of the enduring legacy of French colonialism. When these states became independent, their languages remained undeveloped and unfit to assume an official status. With so many pressing social and economic problems, the effort required to codify local languages and produce a whole literature in it was beyond the capabilities of infant governments. Furthermore, many of the new states had many vernaculars but no dominant one. So it was simply easier and more convenient to go on with the status quo and keep French as the medium of administration and learning, especially since France was only too happy to invest millions of francs in the maintenance of the French language in her former colonies.
Now from its very beginnings as a state, Portugal had always been francophile, and the Estado Novo of Prime Minister Salazar was directly inspired by French colonial policy. Portugal intended to retain its overseas possessions, and in 1951 Dr Salazar decided to put into effect the solution which the French had employed in regard to their smaller colonies of Guyana, the West Indians, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific: integration with metropolitan France. And so Portugal's remaining African and Asian colonies were declared 'overseas provinces' of Portugal. Within this framework East Timor had the additional status of região autónoma, no doubt in recognition of its long tradition of semi-independence within the Portuguese Empire.
According to the logic of this reform, Angolans, Timorese and Macanese could, and should, consider themselves just as Portuguese as inhabitants of Lisbon, Coimbra or Porto. Schoolchildren in Portugal were taught that Tatamailau, the loftiest peak in Timor, was "Portugal's highest mountain". According to this same logic, there was no reason for a Timorese to want to read and write the language he had learnt at his mother's knee; since he was fully Portuguese, his true language was that of Portugal. East Timor had been integrated into Portugal long before Indonesia framed its doomed policy of Integrasi.
One of the great ironies of Portuguese history is that the left-wing coup that toppled the Caetano régime in 1974 and embarked on the decolonization of the overseas provinces, made no real effort to reverse the cultural assimilationism of the Estado Novo. Furthermore the indigenous élite that came to power in the new states of Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé e Príncipe, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, all remained as culturally tied to Portugal as ever. In not one of these states is Standard Portuguese the mother tongue of the native population, but in every one of them the sole official language to this day is Portuguese.
In the light of this centralist tradition, it should surprise no-one that the senior East Timorese élite, whatever their political colour, have remained staunchly lusophile, in spite of occasional anti-Portuguese rhetoric, ever since Portugal withdrew from the territory in 1975. So it need surprise no-one that so many prominent Timorese who pay lip-service to the value of Tetum as a national language in practice do little or nothing to promote it, and remain as attached as ever to Portuguese. Nor should it surprise us that certain Timorese are sceptical and even hostile to attempts to refine Tetum as a modern literary medium.
The Portuguese language has huge emotional significance in East Timor, and not only because Portuguese (rather than Tetum) was the language of national resistance to the Indonesians. Between 1975 and 1999 the Timorese could not help making an odious comparison of Portuguese and Indonesian rule. Certainly the shortcomings of the Salazar-Caetano and earlier colonial regimes were remembered. But if even the less lusified Timorese preferred Portuguese to Indonesian rule, it was because Portuguese rule had been generally minimalistic and laissez-faire. The Portuguese had spread their religion and elements of their culture in East Timor, but traditional society carried on largely undisturbed. Portuguese rule in Timor had not been sullied by massacres of civilians, arbitrary arrest and torture, the destruction of rural cultures, coerced conversions to a new religion, forced resettlement of populations and plantations of colonists. Indonesian rule was guilty of all this. Its most positive contribution was a material infrastructure which its Army spitefully destroyed when it was forced to withdraw last September.
Part of this infrastructure was an education system which allowed only Indonesian as the medium of instruction, and taught the history of Indonesia while totally neglecting East Timorese history and culture. The same Indonesian education that encouraged contempt for everything Portuguese still influences the thinking of some Timorese youth. Uncertain and insecure about their own culture, many of the younger generation are easily manipulated by foreigners now working hard to promote English as the dominant language for various self-interested reasons. The best linguistic regime for the new East Timor is-the youth are told-a binomium of English, the key to prosperity and happiness in the modern world, and Tetum, the true vernacular. Portuguese-they are told-is a useless relic of the past and should now be consigned to the dustbin of history.
The view of the CNRT and of the Church-and one which I fully share-is that a generation deprived of the universalistic culture formerly taught in Portuguese schools and nurtured on Suhartoeist materialism and narrow state ideology is poorly equipped to make mature value judgements about language. Their call for a referendum on the official language shows a dangerous tendency to politicize language without any real understanding of the underlying sociological, educational and other cultural issues crucial to enlightened language planning. A complicating factor in the current linguistic dispute is the unfair advantage that English currently enjoys as the common language of the 'liberators' of the nation. And whereas the Indonesians had suppressed Portuguese in the schools, they had encouraged the teaching of English. In the face of this threat of anglicization through the power of prestige, Timor's civil and Church leaderships are now appealing to Portugal and Brazil for support in restoring Portuguese in civil society and especially in the schools.
Having carefully studied Timorese linguistics and culture over the past twenty years, I see the decision to revive official Portuguese in East Timor as both justified and feasible. Those tempted to believe that official Portuguese will be an anachronism and a handicap for the new nation should remember first of all that Portuguese is hardly an insignificant language in the global context. It is the world's sixth biggest language in terms of numbers of speakers, being more widely used than French, German and Russian. Second, official Portuguese is hardly going to be an economic liability for East Timor when the country is planning to live largely off tourism. East Timor's Latinate architecture and way of life will enable it to be promoted as a little piece of the Latin world off the north-west coast of Australia. A population speaking Portuguese can easily be taught Spanish, Italian and French, all important languages in international tourism. In tourist economies, knowledge of languages means employability and earning capacity.
Third, the Portuguese language is far from moribund in East Timor. That a quarter of the population can still speak it with some degree of fluency is something of a miracle, given the savage persecution of the language for twenty-four years. And only more baseless than the charge that Portuguese is hard for Timorese to learn is the totally ridiculous suggestion that English is an easier language for them. Since Tetum and the other vernaculars are full of Portuguese words, sounds and structures, much of the Portuguese language is immediately comprehensible to Timorese who can't speak it. Portuguese is implicit in the vernaculars of East Timor. Given the right social circumstances, it doesn't take much to activate a language one already understands in part or full.
The fear of the Timorese leadership is that their country will be gradually anglicized is not simply due to a nostalgia for Portuguese. There are strong cultural grounds for the desire to maintain official Portuguese. Aware that their way of life is Latinate, the CNRT and the Church are determined not to see East Timor turned into a cultural satellite of Australia, like Papua-New Guinea. They are well aware that English is a notorious killer; that Anglophone culture in Australia killed off scores of Aboriginal languages in less than two hundred years, whereas in four centuries of Lusophone hegemony not one native dialect of East Timor has been lost.
It is this fear of invasive English that explains why, contrary to general expectations, the CNRT has not yet declared Tetum co-official with Portuguese. The Tetum language now has a standardized grammar and spelling. Its vocabulary has been expanded for modern use and there is a growing literature in it. It could certainly fulfil the role of an official language for domestic purposes. The problem is, however, that the CNRT has before it the example of countries like the Philippines and Malta. These were anglicized by the American and British governments promoting the local vernaculars (Tagalog and Maltese) to co-official status and abolishing the old established languages, Spanish and Italian respectively. Whereas Tagalog had happily co-existed with Spanish, and Maltese was in a compatible partnership with Italian, neither Tagalog nor Maltese could compete with co-official English, the vehicle of an alien culture. Today the language of secondary and tertiary education and higher culture in both the Philippines and Malta is English.
The Timorese leadership are anxious to avoid this fate for their country, and it would appear that their plan is to promote Tetum to co-official status only after Portuguese has been securely restored. To this latter end it is imperative that the young adult generation schooled in Indonesian be given every opportunity to recover their Portuguese so that they can make a full and positivce contribution to the rebuilding of their nation. Special intensive courses in Portuguese must be set up in East Timor for these young people, and the CNRT, together with the Portuguese and Brazilian governments, should ensure that at every foreign non-lusophone university to which Timorese are sent to study, compulsory courses in Portuguese language and literature be provided, if necessary at the expense of Lusophone governments. In this way, tertiary graduates returning to their homeland from, say, Australia, will be fluent in Portuguese as well as English, and will not be disadvantaged vis-à-vis colleagues who have studied at Lusophone institutions when they seek employment.
And what of Indonesian and English in the new East Timor? Formerly official Indonesian, because of its negative associations, is being gradually phased out of local education. However, for obvious geographical reasons Indonesian (or Malay, as the CNRT have not incorrectly rechristened it) will always retain a presence in East Timor as a second language. There can similarly be no question that English will have a large presence in East Timor as a regional and international language. However, it will not have any official status, since it has no authentic role in the national culture. Indonesian and English will be taught as foreign languages in the secondary schools of the future, and the main languages of the new National University of Timor will be Portuguese and English.
In a small nation like East Timor any form of linguistic exclusivism in East Timor will be discouraged by an enlightened and responsible government. Wishing to exclude from Timorese life potentially useful languages like Portuguese, Indonesian and English, is a recipe for isolation and economic suicide. What the new East Timor needs above all is an inclusive language policy, one which makes the most of all the languages-indigenous and foreign-currently available to the people. Just as a nation's cultural health depends on the preservation and fostering of all its indigenous languages and dialects, small countries need many languages to survive and prosper economically. It is not therefore a question of excluding any language, but of determining which of them is to enjoy official status. Present trends suggest that both Portuguese and Tetum will be official languages in East Timor, though Tetum alone will have the status of national language. It is hoped that special status and protection will be given to the other fourteen vernaculars. Malay-Indonesian and English will be used as non-official utilities.
The question of language in education is, however, a particularly difficult one. On the principle that effective learning proceeds from the known to the unknown, it would seem pedagogically sound to teach literacy through Tetum and the other fourteen languages, with students learning Portuguese after learning to read and write their mother tongues. Such an approach would be in conformity with the now classical UNESCO statement of 1953 that "the best medium for teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil." On the other hand, not all the population knows Tetum, and ABC-books and primers are yet to be produced in the numerous local languages and dialects.
According to current CNRT plans, primary education will be through the medium of Portuguese. The main obstacle to an ab initio all-Portuguese programme is the fact that most school-age children and illiterate adults are not fluent in the language. However, this could be effectively overcome by beginning the schooling process with vernacular oral instruction leading to reading and writing in Portuguese. In many Australian Aboriginal schools a combination of oral instruction in the vernacular and progressive reading and writing English has proved successful. A vernacular literacy programme complementing the Portuguese one is indeed possible, but will need a great deal of planning and funding, given the large number of languages and dialects.
Language is certain to be a controversial issue in East Timor over the coming years. Because of a turbulent recent history and the general neglect of Timorese studies to date, restoring Portuguese, developing Tetum, providing the people with linguistic and educational resources in all their languages, and controlling the presence of the two ancillary/utilitarian languages (Malay-Indonesian and English) will be among the nation's many challenges of the twenty-first century.