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Portugese is not being forced onto East Timor as the official language despite claims to the contrary

By Geoffrey Hull - posted Sunday, 22 September 2002

East Timor’s Instituto Nacional de Linguística, the national language authority, deplores the numerous errors and distortions of fact presented in Alfred Deakin’s article East Timor’s Administrative Teething Troubles.

Whatever the accuracy of Mr Deakin’s observations in the sectors of commerce and government, practically every statement that Mr Deakin makes about the language situation in East Timor is incorrect, and betrays a sad ignorance of the cultural realities of this country. Completely untrue is Mr Deakin’s claim that the East Timorese political elite do not speak fluent "Tetun" [sic - the long-established English name of the language is Tetum]. Indeed, Mr Deakin would be hard put to find a single East Timorese leader who does not speak Tetum like a native, no matter how long he or she has lived in exile. And where did Mr Deakin get the extravagant idea that Portuguese is the native language of the East Timorese elite? Since they are all either full-blood Timorese or Mestiços (half-Timorese), the language they learned at their mother’s knee was in almost every case Tetum or another indigenous language.

Contrary to what Mr Deakin imagines, most of the present leaders remained in the country during the Indonesian occupation and, as one might guess, are fluent in the Indonesian language. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with East Timor’s history knows that the Portuguese language (unlike Dutch in Indonesia) has long been central to the national identity, and that the programme of the 1975 Fretilin government and of the Resistance included instating Tetum and Portuguese as the co-official languages.


Mr Deakin seems to have got his language-names confused when he proffered the remarkable observation that "almost all ordinary dealings in the larger towns are conducted" in Indonesian. The language of ordinary business in town and country, throughout most of East Timor is Tetum, not Indonesian.

Mr Deakin must be very proficient in at least Portuguese to be able to conclude that almost no-one in East Timor can speak the second official language. Since a census assessing language use has never been made in East Timor, our statisticians would be interested to learn where Mr Deakin found his figure of 80% absolute non-speakers of Portuguese and 20% incompetent speakers. Given that over two thirds of the vocabulary of Tetum is pure Portuguese, the author unwittingly attributes gross stupidity to the average East Timorese by suggesting that he is unable to understand anything of the language on which his national language is largely based. The reality is that most East Timorese have at least a passive knowledge of Portuguese, quite a feat when one considers the fact that the language was totally banned for twenty-four years. How many languages does the average "well-educated" Australian speak fluently?

As for the "younger Timorese" who "mounted a passionate campaign against enshrining Portuguese as the official language", to whom exactly is Mr Deakin referring? To the whole youth of East Timor, including the majority diligently recovering their Portuguese today? Or perhaps to the politically-motivated sons and daughters of the former Indonesian civil servants who are known to have figured prominently among the 18% of the population who voted for integration with Indonesia in 1999, the prime targets of the virulent anti-Portuguese propaganda of the Occupation?

Being the director of a major Tetum literature project and the author of a large Tetum dictionary containing over 24,000 entries, most of which are abstract or technical terms describing the activities and ideas of modern life, I was particularly sorry to find Mr Deakin informing your readers that Tetum "is an almost completely oral language with a limited, basic vocabulary" and that "all written communications must take place in Portuguese." If Mr Deakin read anything while in East Timor, it was evidently not a Tetum newspaper, website, book, magazine, roadsign or, for that matter, the Tetum text of the national constitution.

Mr Deakin assures us that the East Timorese government "has employed at great expense dozens of Portuguese school teachers (mostly direct from Portugal), who are accommodated in great comfort so they can teach Timorese people to speak, read and write their new national [sic] language." As well as getting the status of Portuguese wrong, Mr Deakin is misleading us again. The truth is that the salaries and expenses of all the foreign teachers of Portuguese in East Timor are paid by the government of Portugal. Would the author also claim that the White Australians recruited to teach English to the Aboriginal children of Arnhem Land are salaried by ATSIC and accommodated in spartan conditions?

One wonders what all the misinformation about East Timor and the now embarrassingly dated Anglo-Australian sport of Portugal-baiting typical of Mr Deakin’s piece are doing for harmonious relations between Australia, East Timor and the European Union. For Australians such as myself who know and love East Timor it is in any case depressing to find so many Australian journalists and writers taking huge liberties with the truth whenever they approach this subject. It would appear that the unpardonable sin of East Timor has been to choose its own identity over the chance to become a cultural satellite of post-genocidal White Australia, a fate about which indigenous Australians could speak volumes, and eloquently. Is it any wonder that the Timorese judge quoted by Mr Deakin quipped that "the only people we dislike more than Australians are Indonesians"? I’d say we’re fast becoming the favourites for first place.

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This article is a response to Alfred Deakin's article "East Timor's administrative teething trouble".

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About the Author

Dr Geoffrey Hull is Director de Investigações e de Edições Instituto Nacional de Linguística Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e.

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Related Links
Instituto Nacional de Linguística Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e
United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor
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