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What’s the point of teaching languages?

By Brian Manning - posted Monday, 12 May 2008

I was invited to attend the first Conference of Fretilin since Independence in May 2000 and the issue which attracted the most debate was, what languages would East Timor use now.

Bearing in mind that a whole generation had grown up being forced to speak Bahasa, all the schools were using Bahasa and some students were part of the way through their courses in secondary and tertiary institutions.

There was strong argument to continue the use of Bahasa but there was strong sentiment to reject Indonesian Bahasa as it was the language of their oppressors for the last 24 years.


After much vigorous debate, the consensus was to use Portuguese as the “official” language with Tetum becoming the “national” language, which would be further developed as a language. Bahasa would continue to be used as a transitional language and English would also be used in higher education.

Arguments to retain Portuguese, which after all was the language of a coloniser, included existing official documents relating to land tenure and historical material that was all in Portuguese. Also, Fretilin was concerned to retain close fraternal relations with other ex-Portuguese colonies, and Portugal itself, because of the support they had received in their struggle for Independence.

The position now, eight years after independence, is that interpreters are required in parliament to translate for those members who do not speak Portuguese so they can follow the debate.

I needed an interpreter to follow the debate in conference and to translate my address to the Conference into Tetum. So I can imagine that anyone seeking to do business in East Timor must either learn the national language or seek to employ a translator.

Timorese are already learning English to conduct business in the street as a universal language however there is no doubt that those foreigners who take the time to learn Tetum are able to develop a much more satisfactory relationship with the Timorese people.

I had a similar experience in the Philippines when my wife and family spent our long service leave holiday there. When asked to interpret a reasonably lengthy response to my question, my spouse would give me an abridged précis answer, either “yes” or “no”, which I found extremely frustrating.


I’ve lived in Darwin for the past 52 years where the demographics include Indigenous Aboriginal people from various language groups, Greek, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Italian in reasonable numbers and lesser numbers of other foreign languages but the working language is English.

The Education system offers language options in primary and secondary schools which include Mandarin (although the local Chinese are mostly Cantonese), Indonesian Bahasa and Greek.

Although there might not have been commercial value in teaching an Aboriginal language, I sought to have my children learn Gubabuingu, a widely spoken language in the top end with no success. I considered that learning the local Aboriginal language a courtesy to the original inhabitants, so obtained a language course in Gubabuingu from the Curriculum Development Centre in Canberra, and with the enthusiastic assistance of some of my adopted kinship family am able to communicate more effectively with them in their language.

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About the Author

Brian Manning was born in South-East country Queensland and arrived in the Northern Territory in 1956 where he has worked variously as a carpenter, builder, airport fireman, club manager, steel erector, stock worker, rice farmer, wharfie and union official until retirement in 2002. During that time he has also been a political activist in the area of social justice and human rights.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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