Language choices, verbal practices and literacy acquisition in the multilingual society of East Timor

Danielle Boon

Ministry of Education and Culture, National Centre of Non-formal Education/UNDP, Dilli, East-Timor

TP163: Language policy and literacy

Since its independence in 1999, East Timor has two official languages: Portuguese and Tetum. Besides Tetum, there are 15 other national languages and a number of dialects. Additionally, many East Timorese speak Bahasa Indonesia because of the recent Indonesian occupation that lasted from 1975 until 1999.

This multilingual situation is strongly interrelated with the social structure of the East Timorese society. The Portuguese language, though only still spoken by a minority, has the highest status. Tetum, as a lingua franca, is most widely used for written as well as spoken communication throughout the country, and the other national languages are gradually being developed by the state: more and more grammars and word lists have been published in recent years or are still in preparation.

An estimated half of the adult population is illiterate. Verbal practices are crucial in East Timorese daily life in all layers of society. Although many people are in the process of learning to read and write, verbal practices will continue to display and contribute to social organisation now and in the future. Moreover, in this new nation where history still strongly affects contemporary life, at the same time identities, communities and cultures are changing due to new influences, contacts and recent developments. Consequences of the language choices made are playing an important role in this process of change.

In 2001 the government started national adult literacy programmes in Tetum and Portuguese. Since the first language of most East Timorese is either Tetum or another national language/dialect, Portuguese is mainly a second (and often third) language to learn. So currently many East Timorese people are learning to read and write in a second or third language. Portuguese and Tetum differ in phonological structure, both in the inventory of phonemes as in syllabic structure. Moreover, the orthographies of the languages differ in transparency, the orthography of Tetum being more consistent. These differences might influence the learning process.

The issues that will be presented at the SS17 are part of a larger research project (2007-2011) that investigates adult literacy acquisition and use in East Timor. This project combines cognitive/linguistic and social-cultural perspectives and employs multiple research strategies in an empirical study including (a) a multi-site sociolinguistic-ethnographic case study investigating values and uses of languages and literacy, instructional practices and learning in the act of becoming and being literate in Portuguese, Tetum and Fataluku and (b) an evaluation study assessing the influence of language choices, methodology and transparency on the effectiveness of adult literacy programs in these three languages.

The presentation will focus on the influence of language choices made in East Timor on: a) literacy acquisition, b) verbal and literacy practices in local contexts, c) learning strategies and behaviour of adult literacy learners, d) instructional practices in the literacy classes and the methodologies and feedback the teachers are putting into play.

Session: Themed Panel
Language policy and literacy
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 06