Subject: NYT: A Tower of Babel for East Timorese as They Seek a Language

The New York Times Sunday, April 23, 2000

A Tower of Babel for East Timorese as They Seek a Language


DILI, East Timor -- There is not much question about the language of commerce here as East Timor begins to define itself as a nation. The muddy central market is alive with the cries of moneychangers: "Dollar America! Dollar America! America, America, America, America!"

What is much less clear, however, and far more hotly emotional, is the question of the actual spoken language of East Timor, a question that goes to the heart of the self-definition of the world's newest nation.

Will it -- like the dollar -- be the language of the international marketplace, English? Will it be the dominant local language, Tetun, with its broad usage but limited vocabulary? Will it be the colonial language, Portuguese, the sentimental favorite of the older generation? Or will it be Indonesian, the common language of the young and the educated?

East Timor has not been on its own as a modern nation, its history overlaid by more than 400 years of Portuguese colonialism followed by 24 years of Indonesian occupation that ended last year. What will it keep from the past and what will it angrily discard? What is Timorese and what is an unwelcome import by foreign interlopers? What does it mean, as the nation emerges from its trauma, to be Timorese?

For many here, the answers lie in the choice of a national language.

Although the nation is physically ruined and emotionally traumatized, its people hungry and mostly jobless, it is the question of language that sets off the angriest debates, hinting at social divisions that lie not far below the surface.

Rough statistics show the breakdown. About 60 percent of the population speaks Tetun (which is sometimes called Tetum). As many as 90 percent of people under 35 speak Indonesian, as do 40 percent of those over 35. But just 10 percent speak Portuguese, almost all of them in the older generation.

After Indonesia's invasion in 1975, the clandestine East Timorese leadership decided that the language of a future independent nation would be Portuguese. After a generation of struggle, these same leaders -- now middle-aged men -- have formally announced that this will be the national language, in honor of their country's past and of their own independence struggle.

But their announcement has only spurred further debate, for it would make linguistic outsiders of the great majority of East Timorese, pushing them to the sidelines of national reconstruction. Those most affected would be the people most vital to building a nation, young people with education and skills.

"For 24 years they forced us to learn Indonesian," said Helder Luis Pires, 25, a university student, speaking in Indonesian. "Now the political leaders want to force us to speak Portuguese. If they continue to do that there will be a big conflict between the young and old generations."

Oscar Lopes, 22, another student, agreed. "Europe is awfully far away," he said. "And take a look at Europe. Even there, almost nobody speaks Portuguese. Who are we going to talk to?"

To promote its language, Portugal has sent a contingent of language teachers to offer courses here, but this only makes some of the young people angrier.

"Now is the time to work, not to study language," said Ivete de Oliveira, 25, a pro-independence activist who, like 20,000 other Timorese over the past 24 years, studied in Indonesia.

"We object," she said, speaking in English. "They don't respect us and they don't respect our education. In the future who will handle the country? The future is in the hands of the youth. But they are from the '75 generation and they don't think about us. Using Portuguese means they will control the government and there will be no place for us."

She added: "It was not the Indonesian language that traumatized us. Maybe the Indonesians did, but not their language. Their language has made us more rich, and in the future we will have close relations with Indonesia."

If Portuguese does become the national language, an entire nation will need to convert itself linguistically, starting with schoolchildren who will be taught in a language most of their parents do not know.

Whatever the rules, the court system will for the time being operate in Indonesian. All the nation's lawyers were trained in Indonesia and until a new legal code is written, a modified form of Indonesian law will apply.

If the new Timorese government is determined to rid all vestiges of the Indonesian occupation and teach everybody a new common language, some people argue, then why not go all the way and learn the world's international language, English?

Jose Ramos Horta, a longtime independence propagandist, has an answer: "English is a commodity, not a culture."

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