Second tongue causes strife

August 9, 2002

Students in East Timor are finding their country's second official language tough to learn because there are so few opportunities to practice.

After voting for independence from Indonesia in September 1999, East Timor adopted Portuguese as one of its two official languages. Tetum, an indigenous language spoken by 82 per cent of the people, was chosen as the other. East Timor was a former colony of Portugal and Portuguese was used to communicate with the international community during the Indonesian occupation between 1975-99. But only 5 per cent of the people actually speak the language, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Few 18 to 25-year-olds have any experience of Portuguese.

"Some of us get to study Portuguese once a week for two hours," said Luizinho dos Santos, 22, an agriculture and economics major. "Our classes are big and we don't get time to practise in class. And we have no real contact with Portuguese outside class, except on TV."

Sergio da Silva Rei, 26, a political science student at the University of East Timor, added: "We want to support our government's language policy. But we have little chance to meet Portuguese speakers for practice and classes, we just focus on grammar. To be honest, we're happy using Indonesian and Tetum. And we'd like to learn English because it is the international language in East Timor."

Portuguese teaching at the university is old-fashioned and students find it daunting. Classrooms are crammed with students; the teacher lectures rather than encourages the students to speak the language; and the blackboard is covered in grammar rules explaining verb endings.

The problem with the lack of exposure to Portuguese is compounded by an acute lack of learning resources. East Timor is the poorest country in Asia: 41 per cent of the people live on 55 cents a day, according to the UNDP. Portugal has promised about $50 million (£33 million) to fund language development, but experts believe it will take up to 15 years before Portuguese is identified as a countrywide language.

Two thousand government staff, teachers, health workers and judiciary staff need Portuguese language training, and all government documents have to be translated. Over the past three years, students have witnessed first-hand English used as the lingua franca of UN workers. "English would be more useful than Portuguese," Mr da Silva Rei added.

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