|Subject: DPA: East Timor gets its tongues
in a tangle
April 15, 2002, Monday
East Timor gets its tongues in a tangle
DATELINE: Dili, East Timor
The government buildings around it are gutted, but surviving intact as a minor miracle in the center of Dili is a billboard urging the locals to speak good Indonesian, the language of East Timors most recent colonial master.
The Indonesians are gone, kicked out at terrible human cost three years ago. East Timor, for 24 years a colony, is just weeks away from becoming the world's newest independent country.
Oddly enough, the leadership has skipped back several generations and is adopting as its chosen tongue Portuguese, the language of the first colonial master.
Such is the controversy surrounding this decision that a banner put up in the battered capital to promote the use of Portuguese would likely be defaced.
Given that only around 15 per cent of East Timor's 750,000 people speak any Portuguese at all, picking such an unpopular lingua franca needs some explaining.
To Xanana Gusmao, the likely first president of a tiny country that has mighty Indonesia to its north, south, east and west, adopting Portuguese will help shore up East Timors national identity and help resist a blending back into the archipelago.
"Portugal gave us this identity historical, cultural and religious that allowed us to be different from the Indonesian archipelago," Gusmao said. "It is not nostalgia, it is fundamental to our identity.
Gusmao, who learned Indonesian during a seven-year stretch in a Jakarta jail for his role in the resistance, believes that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. To him, its necessary to continue highlighting the differences between the half-island and the rest of the archipelago.
Gusmao notes that, alone in the string of islands that stretches from west to east farther than the continental United States, East Timor was the only territory with its own language and its own distinct colonial heritage. Without those differences, he claims, independence would not have been won.
The one quarter of East Timorese who are under 20-years-of-age are alarmed at the prospect of learning a new and difficult language. To most of them, Indonesian had become the language of everyday discourse, the language they were taught at school and the language that almost all the schoolbooks were printed in.
East Timor is a linguist's nirvana. Tatum, one of 19 local languages, is the most widely spoken, and is a link to the Timorese who live on the other side of the border in Indonesian West Timor.
Portuguese is the language of the East Timor elite, the assimilados those like Gusmao who have a Portuguese parents or grandparents. Indonesian, though, is the language that around 65 per cent of the population have in common. And, unlike Tatum, its a language with an extensive vocabulary and fixed grammar.
East Timor's particular history has thrown another language into the cauldron: English.
Mari Alkatiri, the academic who next May 20 will become the prime minister, fled his homeland and was brought up in Portugal. But there are many others who sought sanctuary elsewhere and have brought back with them a fluency in English.
Linus Lopez, a 26-year-old now driving taxis for a living, spent five years in Australia. He has a brother who went to Canada and took out a passport but now wants to return.
"I think English is the right choice. Why should we take the language of the Portuguese? They never helped us. They just up and left in 1975. They left us nothing. We owe them nothing," Lopez said.
In response to the clamour for English, Gusmao admits that of course, "English will be important to our education but insists that we dont need to have English as our national language because it is international, everybody everywhere speaks English, or tries to speak it, like me."
Gusmao, Alkatiri and other national leaders have softened their campaign to have Portuguese anointed as the top tongue. They seem to be coming round to a free-market approach, in which languages would compete to gain market share.
But that itself presents a dilemma. Indonesian has been excised from the school curriculum and Portuguese taken its place. But what of the court system, where there are not enough Portuguese speaking judges and hardly any Portuguese speaking criminals?
Portugal has offered to fund the spread of Portuguese. Lisbon has promised to pay for 150 Portuguese teachers in a three-year program that will cost 52 million U.S. dollars.
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