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Timor-Leste: Mother tongue or national language?

The current debate in Timor-Leste about whether to use a ‘mother tongue’ or home language for the first years of education or whether to focus on building Tetum as a national language has raised a number of important points. These include whether local languages are, in the long term, viable and whether they could promote disunity, or whether children already disadvantaged by communication in a multiplicity of languages will learn better if they start in a language they are most familiar with.
The literature on learning does clearly indicate that children are more engaged and do have better educational outcomes if they at least begin their education in a language they are most familiar with. A second, national language can be taught as part of the school curriculum and, at a point at which students are sufficiently advanced, they can switch to the national language.
Of course, this shift in languages of instruction has its own problems. Fluency will never be as great as having started their education in the national language, assuming that education is continued through to the now anticipated 11 years for children under seven. But given that children develop their foundational language skills in the first few years of life and that this is learned at home, starting cold in a ‘foreign’ language would immediately disengage many from the learning process. ‘Learning to learn’ is, perhaps, the most critical skill, even more so than the language it is learned in.
Most linguists also argue that preservation of home languages is critical to the maintenance of local culture. It has long been recognised in the development field that the imposition of transition from familiar culture to an alien, developmentalist or ‘national’ culture can produce many of the negative reactions that the pro-national lobby is trying to avoid.
There is also an implicit value in the retention of local languages. If there was not, all national languages would be dissolved and replaced by one global language (as, indeed, it sometimes seems it is).
However, the situation is a complex one. It is also equally true that conceptions of national identity and unity are closely tied to sharing a common language and that linguistic separation does provide fertile ground for potential ethnic rivalries. It especially does so when one language group is disadvantaged relative to others, in terms of economic or educational opportunities.
For this reason, it has been a standard project of central governments to standardise ‘national’ languages, even to the extent that this standardisation has been imposed and to some extent might be artificial. Such artificiality tends to be greatest where prior history and culture has been very separate, but works better where there has been some common history and significant elements of common culture.
For a small population, Timor-Leste has a wide diversity of language groups and, at one historic point, there were significant differences between some of them. However, the people of Timor-Leste have long shared important characteristics, belief in lulic being critical among them, along with a relatively high degree of fluency in more than one language. They have also since developed many shared cultural characteristics, in part a product of Portuguese and Indonesian colonialism, in part in response to that colonialism and in part through the usual process of trade and movement, especially in more recent decades.
Importantly, too, while there were political divisions during the period of the Indonesian occupation, the unity born of resistance remains strong and continues as a defining characteristic of Timor-Leste national identity.
Tetum has spread across Timor-Leste through trade and the necessity of communications in an increasingly complex and often externally defined world. It also spread through liturgy during the Indonesian occupation. Its formal introduction into the school curriculum process is entirely appropriate as enhancing such communication and helping to create greater bonds of national identity.
But a measured approach to its introduction which does not alienate children from the formative years of education is critical, hence the introduction of the ‘mother tongue’ program.
The one concern that does arise from this debate, however, is that it is being used as a cover for other, more overtly political agendas. The mother tongue program is most visibly associated with Kirsty Sword-Gusmao, the wife of the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. It is constructive to discuss important policy issues such as education and the use of languages. One would only hope that this debate does not become a proxy for other issues in the increasingly heightened political environment ahead of the coming elections.

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