Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Learning Tetum?

In advance of our move to Timor this December I've been subscribing to a few mailing lists to try and get a better understanding of some of the issues. I've got to say that, while I've got a decent understanding of many of the issues from the Indonesian side, I haven't the faintest idea what the Timorese people really think about all of the same issues. One issue which particularly interests me is language - how it works, the political considerations in using it, its adequacy as a modern language.

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...


johnorford said...

every non-english language seems to be localising english words left right and centre, in order to stay modern.

as language is just a way of communication, i think it's only natural that Timor's official language should be the language which they're most comfortable with.

nice post tho.

mr_john said...

Oh, I'm by no means advocating the euthanasia of Tetum as a way of communication. In fact, I think Jose Ramos Horta's suggestion to promote Indonesian as a day-to-day language is more dangerous than it sounds. It sounds like he is advocating Indonesian as the lingua franca... Nothing will speed the death of Tetum more than that. I was tentatively suggesting that maybe Tetum should be the day-to-day language and perhaps Indonesian be the language of law, education, etc.

johnorford said...

"I was tentatively suggesting that maybe Tetum should be the day-to-day language and perhaps Indonesian be the language of law, education, etc."

Yeh, that's what I disagree with.

Reckon the best would be to let Tetum evolve into the roles it's needed for (however much English/Indonesian needs be absorbed into it).

ohminous_t said...

I was going to post something but comments thus far are too intellectual, suggest I am intimidated.

Kalakay Mandhita said...

Have you got any response on the mailing list yet? It is a funny situation that the Timorese have got themselves into. Not that different, essentially, with Indonesia in the 40s, when the idea of an Indonesian language as a national language landed forcefully in the minds of the elites. And 60 years later, not one Indonesian I know use proper, formal, Indonesian comfortably in day-to-day communication. Except, still, for the elites.

Yohanes Manhitu said...

Nice to meet you, Mr. John. It is always nice to read something about Tetum. Actually, I wanted to write in Tetum, but after reading your text more carefully, I decided to write you in English instead. To the best of my knowledge, every language has power and beauty, and it is up to the speakers to make use of the potentials. The future of Tetum, of course, depends on how the Timoroans treat their means of communication, wheather as a top priority or just a second-class language. A well planned total Tetum literacy campaign throughout the country will help introduce the modern spelling sytem to all levels of education and promote the use of Tetum in all aspects of life. By the way, nobody can deny the strong position of Bahasa Indonesia in East Timor up to these days. But it won't be any 'ameasa' (treath), rather a ready-to-use passport for spending holidays in Timór Loromonu (West Timor) or doing business with the giant neighbouring country.

Ken Westmoreland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Westmoreland said...

And another thing, you mention economics.

Conventional wisdom is that small countries like East Timor will be dependent on their giant neighbours. Up to a point.

There are now thousands of East Timorese living and working in the UK, taking advantage of their right to Portuguese nationality. (It's easier for them to work in Dungannon, Northern Ireland (aka New Dili!) than Darwin, Northern Territory.

They send back thousands of pounds in remittances a day, which has gone a long way in a country of little over a million people.

While most of them don't speak Portuguese, most of them don't speak English either.

The irony is that the East Timorese in East Timor are more keen to learn English than the ones in the UK, who say they don't have the time.

On the one hand, I think they're cutting themselves off, but on the other, I have made money out of translating documents into Tetum for Northern Ireland's equivalent of Centrelink.

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