1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Timor-Leste

When do mother tongues divide?

Students at the school in Manatutu say lessons taught in their indigenous language are easier to follow. Critics say using indigenous languages in schools delays fluency in languages used in business and government, and risks undermining national unity
(Brendan Brady/IRIN)

A proposal to sanction the use of indigenous languages in primary schools in polyglot Timor-Leste has divided members of government, civil society and educators, raising questions about how language can spur harmony - or discord - in the young nation.

The “mother-tongue” programme is spearheaded by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has promoted similar programmes in other countries.

Programme organizers say children best develop cognitive skills when taught in the language spoken in the home during their first years of school, rather than in official national languages - Tetum and Portuguese in the case of Timor-Leste - which are less commonly used in community settings.

Instructing children in their household languages prevents poorer children, who tend to be less exposed to languages spoken outside their homes, from being disadvantaged in school and eventually dropping out, said UNESCO.

About one in five children in Timor-Leste must repeat the first year of schooling, and half of the students who enrol in primary school do not complete it, according to the most recent UN Human Development Index.

“Portuguese resonates historically, socially and culturally for Timorese like no other language, but the reality is that in many homes across Timor-Leste, neither [Tetum or Portuguese] is the first language of communities, so their use inhibits [children’s] ability to acquire new knowledge,” Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, an Australian-born social activist who is head of the country’s UNESCO office, told IRIN.

Poor education and the limitations it imposes on job opportunities for young people are among the leading potential causes of future friction, she added. Youth gang violence has until recently been problematic in cities, but is now declining. 

Portugal controlled Timor-Leste as a colony until 1975. Less than two weeks into Timor-Leste’s independence, Indonesia invaded and began a brutal 24-year occupation. A quarter of the island nation’s population perished under Indonesian rule.

Many of Timor-Leste’s independence leaders were educated in Portuguese and have promoted it as the language of resistance to emphasize historical and cultural differences between their would-be nation and surrounding island territories controlled by Indonesia.

They also deemed Portuguese to be a neutral language among the people of Timor-Leste, which has dozens of indigenous languages. When Timor-Leste achieved independence, its leaders chose Portuguese and Tetum as the country’s official languages and instructed schools to teach in these.

Tetum had by then emerged as a language spoken by a majority of Timorese, while Portuguese was spoken by just a fraction of the population. Today, teachers and students alike are still struggling to catch up to the policy.

Bonafacio Barros, an 18-year-old high school student in Dili, the capital, said he tended to “tune out” when his instructors used Portuguese. “We can only understand a little bit.” Julia Gaio, an adviser to the Ministry of Education, said many teachers struggled to engage primary school students in their lessons unless they used the children’s household language.

Though most people in Timor-Leste speak Tetum by adulthood, many have a tenuous grasp of the language during their first years of schooling.

The mother-tongue programme will instruct in students’ household languages in their first years at school, after which Tetum and Portuguese will be gradually included. A pilot programme is scheduled to be introduced in twelve primary schools across the country in April.

Opponents say the project will be difficult to implement because most of the country’s indigenous languages have little or no script and limited vocabularies.

More importantly, they argue, mother-tongue instruction could jeopardize national unity in a country with less than a decade of self-rule and a history of bloody flare-ups derived from regional factionalism.

“This policy would inculcate a sense of division… it would slowly start to destroy national identity and unity,” said a statement reflecting the strong opposition to the plan in some parts of the country. It was released by a coalition of local NGOs, some of which later withdrew their support.

“We are struggling to consolidate unity so that everybody thinks as East Timorese instead of thinking, I’m a Mumbai, I’m a Fataluco, etc.,” President José Ramos-Horta told IRIN, referring to two of the country’s ethnic groups. In 2008, Ramos-Horta barely survived an assassination attempt that stemmed, in part, from regional factionalism.

He is concerned that a rollout beyond the 12 schools may detract from efforts to boost literacy in Tetum, but proponents of the programme see the opposite.

“It is actually a way to keep the nation together by [valuing] different languages and cultures,” said Agustinho Caet, an official at the Ministry of Education. “If you don’t, it could create conflict. People will say, ‘You are forgetting about our language.’”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.