I posted the below to the TimLang mailing list in response to a blog post posted there by the Blob Na'in from the excellent Living Timorously:
Please excuse the intrusion, I'm new to the list and won't actually arrive in TL until December so I'm still very much a novice when it comes to many of the finer points of the many political sensitivities that surround East Timorese language policy, but I'm looking to gain a better understanding (hence joining this list) and I had a few questions.
Without doubt, JRH could have made his announcement a little more tactfully and sounded out the idea at home before diving into it in an overseas press conference, but is the idea itself such a bad thing?
From my blissfully ignorant vantage point overseas, it seems like Portuguese should have been something of a disaster as a national language. Has it stratified society and excluded anyone but the elite from political discourse like it sounds like it should have? Is anyone happy with this solution?
The Blog Na'in makes some excellent points in his argument against the increased use of Indonesian in Timorese government and broader society, but is Tetum really ready to be a fully fledged modern language capable of all of the functions that are required of it? (Further disclaimer: I speak absolutely no Tetum whatsoever, I only know 3 words, two of which are 'kose' and 'kose')
A modern language needs to be a language of education. Can you discuss sub-derivations and discharge rules of formal logic in Tetum? I'm sure you could work it out, but having to invent much of the jargon rather than learning the meaning of the very specific terms would take a while. You could just work out regular rules for Tetum-ising English words or just pronounce English words differently as Indonesian has done (reformasi, administrasi, festival, toilet, publik, film) but what about more abstract philosophy? 'Empiricism', 'deontology', 'utilitarianism', 'hermeutic', 'proposition', and 'metaphysics' are all words that an English speaking first year philosophy student needs to learn to use properly, this is not so hard for an English speaker because many of the words have derivations that we are familiar with. Loan words are not as easy to remember as words from the original language. For me 'schadenfreude' is harder to remember than 'constructivist' though both may be equally new. And this is just one field of education, what about engineering, economics, computer science, etc.?
A modern language needs to be a language of government administration. Can you really discuss economic policy in Tetum to the level that is required? Can national government draft sufficiently unambiguous laws and policies such that sub-national governments know how to use their budgets, and insurance agencies know what they're allowed to insure, and investors know what they are allowed to invest in, and citizens can understand their tax obligations?
A modern language also needs to be a language of law. How do you say 'American Style Option' in Tetum? My experience with dual language legal documents in Indonesian has led me to think that Indonesian is barely able to cope with all of the requirements of a language of law (there was a lot of 'Put Option's and 'Conflict of Interest's on the Indonesian side of the page). Also, don't underestimate the added costs and complications that having legal documents in two or even three (god forbid) languages adds to a negotiation process.
Assuming all of the above are possible in Tetum, or can be made possible with a larger investment of resources in Timor's language planning institutions, you still have the issue of isolation from the rest of the world. Is national pride worth excluding the Timorese people from the international discourse in the above fields (or at least giving them another barrier to cross)?
Is the idea of Tetum as an analogue of the Indonesian concept of a regional language really so distasteful? Indonesia is such a huge complicated country, that they can't afford to spend time on the developing a custom solution for each regional language, hence the blunt instrument of the current regional language policy. Many of Indonesia's regional languages are alive and well, perhaps the Timorese government could find a similar happy medium...
I can never hope to see things from the same point of view as the Timorese resistance fighters who may now be faced with having to read their daily news and see their friends and family use domestically produced products labeled in Indonesian, and I can't really gain a visceral understanding of how distasteful this may be for them, but to me it really seems like this might be just another detour that TL doesn't need on their journey to prosperity.
It's not my decision to make though. Good luck with it...
I'm beginning to suspect I may be the only member of this mailing list, my opus was met with deafening silence... Oh well, I suppose I'll find out all of the latest juicy details on East Timorese language policy soon enough...