Saturday, May 31, 2008

Literacy in Timor

I've been thinking a bit about literacy in Timor recently and there was a discussion on language policy on the ETAN list recently so I weighed in. Below is my slightly edited email to the list:

I have been wondering to what extent the development of Tetum and Portuguese are hindered by the lack of reading materials in either of those languages.

Has there been any effort to develop home grown fiction? Teen novels are hugely popular in Indonesia. Their plots are formulaic and most of them are more than a little brainless, but they're written by teenagers (or at least those who were teenagers relatively recently) and deal with the issues that they face day-to-day.
They also get people reading.

How much Tetum or Portugeuse does your average teenager read on an average day? On a school day, maybe a couple of hundred words. On a weekend, your average teenager probably doesn't exceed a hundred. By contrast your average, say, Australian teenager is emailing their friends, reading blogs, flicking through magazines, reading good quality textbooks (not crappy translations), and maybe even reading a novel for fun. Australian are constantly wandering around in a sea of English language information, I would guess that, even on a weekend, your average Australian teenager reads over a thousand words a day. (Note: I have no basis for these "facts", all figures are off the top of my head).

How hard could it be to publish a novel in Tetum? Run a writing competition calling for 10,000-15,000 word stories in Tetum (!) about teenage life in Timor. The winning entry gets $500 and 5000 copies of their book printed up for distribution around the country. Get it properly edited to make sure all of the spelling and grammar are consistent and correct, print up 5000 copies with brightly coloured cartoons of Timorese teenagers doing teenage things on the cover and send them out to schools all over the country. My personal preference is that people have to pay for them (even if it's only 25c), one, because it gives the project manager an accurate measure of consumption of the book and, two, because it decreases the odds that someone will just take a pile of them because they're free and then have them sit on their shelf or use them as kindling, etc.

How much would it cost? Say, $2000 for advertising of the competition (all over Timor, not just in Dili), $1,000 in prize money (for runners up as well), $10,000 to print the books, $2000 for advertising of the launch and building buzz and maybe another $5,000 in other costs (salaries, etc). $20,000 not including what you make back in book sales? Sounds pretty cheap to me...

To my mind, the most important part about this process is that the books are originally written in Tetum and are not directly translated. In Indonesia there are tens of thousands of translated books to choose from in your average book store and almost all of them are practically incomprehensible. This is because the translators often maintain the sentence structure and flow of the original English and just translate the words leading to a mish-mash that is just confusing.

CARE in conjunction with the Ministry of Education publishes a bi-monthly Tetum and Portuguese magazine called Lafaek (Crocodile) for use in schools that has activities for kids, crosswords, math puzzles, articles with lots of photos, stories, cartoons and even vox pop style interviews with kids from around the country. Spectacular as this project is, and while I've heard anecdotally that teenagers and adults read it all the time, surely it's not as interesting for them as something really targeted at their demographic rather than at 4-10 year olds...

Anyway, that's just something I've been thinking about recently. If anyone out there wants to do it, please feel free. Hell, I'll even chuck in a hundred bucks for the writing competition prize money.

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