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Choosing an Official Language in Timor Leste

Timor Leste
Choosing an Official Language in Timor Leste
on February, 24 2014

The issue of the official language used in Timor Leste (East Timor) is a hotly contested issue even until today. It is not just about what language is easier for the citizens to learn, but also about its historical significance. Timor Leste was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century until 1975. During those years, Portuguese was the lingua franca of the country. For a brief moment, Timor Lester declared independence up until Indonesia invaded the country later in 1975. During the Indonesian regime, they introduced the Indonesian language and declared Timor Leste as Indonesia’s 27th province.

A Closer Look at Timor Leste’s Languages

According to the 2010 census, Tetum Prasa is the most widely spoken language of the country, with 36.6% of the population speaking the language. Other widely spoken languages include Mambai, Tetum Terik (another version of Tetum Prasa used in rural areas), Baikenu, Kemak, and Bunak. There are only less than 600 people in the country who are native speakers of Portuguese. Tetum Prasa, the lingua franca, came from the Austronesian family of languages and is also influence by Portuguese. There are also other indigenous languages in the country, especially those that came from the Papuan tribes.

With the increase of the number of Tetum Prasa speakers, more people chose to abandon their native language and follow the lingua franca. This paved the way for some smaller languages to go extinct. In the middle of 2000, Aone van Engelenhoven, a Dutch linguist, conducted a research to survey the languages still spoken around the country. He discovered that some languages that are thought to be extinct still exist. This includes Makuva that was said to be gone in the 1950’s and Rusenu that many thought has been gone for a long time already.

Controversies Surrounding Language Learning

Forcing the people to speak a language inspired by either the Portuguese or Indonesian former colonizers is not easy. For the older East Timorese, the Indonesian language is highly associated with the reign of Suharto and it has a bad connotation. However, for the younger generation, learning Portuguese is not a good idea. It seems too “foreign” for them and the language is seen as a “colonial language.” There are some East Timorese though who are more comfortable with Portuguese. They are those who have become intertwined with Portuguese cultures. Some locals have even married Portuguese people during their stay in the country. Therefore, when the Indonesian language was introduced, they were highly resistant.

The official language to be used as a medium of instruction is also controversial. The government pushes for the use of Tetum Prasa as it is widely spoken in the country. However, there are those who still push for the use of their native language since studies show that children learn better when they are taught using their native language first. They can just shift to learning a second language in the future. Besides, promoting the use of Tetum Prasa is also seen as a way to disunite the country since not everyone is fine with its use.

Recently, another issue has sparked division since Portugal and other Portuguese speaking countries opened up the idea of reinstating Portuguese as the lingua franca in the country. Though this has raised eyebrows in nearby Asian countries, Brazil and Portugal still introduced teachers in the country to teach the language. According to the locals, these teachers are not good enough since they don’t make efforts to learn the local language first or even the local culture.

There will always be a struggle when it comes to the languages used in the country. Hopefully, it will be settled soon and the government will come up with something to unify the citizens.


Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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