Subject: Children in East Timor learn Finnish from schoolbooks

Children in East Timor learn Finnish from schoolbooks

Finnish is a neutral language; Portuguese, English and Bahasa Indonesian all relate to the colonial past

Helsinki Sanomat Tuesday 17 September By Inkeri Koskela

"Leikkaa tästä" (cut here), "piirrä" (draw), "tavataan taas" (see you later). Children in East Timor may soon surprise an unsuspecting Finnish traveller with short Finnish greetings and instructions, which they have picked up from their Finnish schoolbook, Opin Itse (I'm Learning).

Last year a Finnish publishing house provided East Timor with 220,000 copies of a schoolbook aimed at first and second graders. This is a fairly substantial order from a country with total population of just shy of 800,000. There's a book for every fourth East Timorese.

After the first year the feedback on the Finnish books has been good, report UN officials. Local teachers have been satisfied with the material they chose.

"We did offer to translate the books into some other language, but they insisted on having them in Finnish", reveals Managing Director Pentti Molander from the publishing house of Tammi.

The reason behind the unusual deal was the thorny language question facing East Timor. When the order for schoolbooks was placed, the official language for East Timor had not yet been chosen. As the area used to be a Portuguese colony, the older generation still speaks Portuguese. The generation that grew up during the Indonesian regime, on the other hand, speak primarily Bahasa Indonesian.

The original East Timorese language, Tetum, has a fairly primitive grammar and thanks to eight or nine different tribal dialects, even this language does not unite the population.

The language question surfaced when East Timor, together with the United Nations and the World Bank, started rebuilding the country's educational infrastructure. What would be the language of tutoring? Which language would be suitable for the schoolbooks?

As a result UNTAET (the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor) - the body established in October 1999 to administer the territory, exercise legislative and executive authority during the transition period, and support capacity building for self-government - launched a quest at the beginning of 2000 to find a suitable schoolbook series for the new nation.

For the task the World Bank hired Nigel Billany, the CEO of Opifer Ltd, an educational consulting agency within Tammi Publishers. Billany and the World Bank had previously worked together on other projects.

Opifer Ltd found globally around thirty different schoolbook series for newcomers and sent them to East Timor for evaluation. The evaluation team, which consisted of local teachers, finally came down in favour of the Finnish book series.

"The fact that they wanted the books in a politically neutral language definitely contributed to the selection outcome.

Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, English, and French are all associated with colonialism", Billany explains.

The best asset of the Finnish Opin Itse books is its illustrations. Furthermore, there isn't that much text to the books. The teacher can pretty much decide on the actual language of instruction.

According to Pentti Molander, the total cost of the package was around EUR 85,000 from which the publishers collected a measly EUR 3,300 in profits. The World Bank financed the entire purchase.

Opin Itse books are basically throwaway books. The exercises are completed on the book's pages, which means the same books cannot be used year after year. Billany therefore suspects there will soon be a need for more books.

New books have not yet been ordered and the Finns have not made an offer either. "We have to take it easy. The first year in East Timor has been pretty torn and tattered to say the very least. In virtually everything, the East Timorese have had to start from scratch", Billany explains.

On leaving, the Indonesians demolished three-quarters of the country's infrastructure. Schools and books were burned, and teachers were chased to refugee camps.

The bulk of the country's statistics were also destroyed. Even now, no one knows exactly how many children should start school each year.

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