Building bridges through multilingual schooling: a mother-tongue pilot in East Timor is showing the way

By March 2, 2017Education

Grade 2 Oral Tetun class

Editor’s note: As the Language on the Move team is busy preparing for the “Bridging Language Barriers” Symposium to be hosted at Macquarie University on March 16, Kerry Taylor-Leech introduces us to a mother-tongue education pilot in East Timor. Mother-tongue-based multilingual education is a key strategy for equitable access to education and Kerry explains how the pilot bridges barriers to learning faced by rural children in the global south.

Registration for the “Bridging Language Barriers” Symposium closes today but if you cannot attend in person, you can still join the conversation with our team of live-tweeters on the day. Our Twitter hashtag will be #LOTM2017.


Hatudu ba malai iha ne’bé ho kámera! (Point to the foreigner with the camera!). Some thirty little faces and fingers swing round in my direction. I am at the back of a classroom observing a Grade 2 Tetun-as-a-second language lesson in a school in Lautém, East Timor. Turning observation on its head, this energetic and charismatic teacher has made use of me in his Total Physical Response (TPR) lesson. The children love it and I too am enjoying myself immensely.

Grade 1 child reading independently

The lesson is taking place in a school participating in a mother-tongue based multilingual education pilot. Known in East Timor as EMBLI (in Tetun: Edukasaun Multilingue Bazia Lian-Inan—Multilingual Education in Mother Tongues), the pilot is overseen by the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO and supported by a network of agencies and organisations known as Repete 13. The lesson observation was part of several visits I was lucky enough to make to the pilot schools in 2016, accompanying EMBLI trainers on their regular monitoring tours. I’ve been visiting East Timor since 2001 for work, consultancy and research. I was making this trip to catch up with the pilot, which I have been following since its inception. I’ve also followed and been involved in the sometimes-heated public debates that preceded it.

Fataluku word recognition

In 2013 the East Timorese Ministry of Education implemented a three-year mother-tongue pilot in three districts with large communities of endogenous language speakers (Galoli in Manatuto District, Fataluku in Lautém District and Baikenu in Oecusse District). Operating from pre-primary to Grade 3 level, the pilot officially ended in 2015 but was extended for a further two years and will include Grade 4 in 2017. Now is a good time to be writing about the pilot because the first results of an Endline Survey have recently been released. Conducted by the well-known assessment specialist Dr Steve Walter, the survey compared children’s performance in EMBLI schools, government schools and Portuguese-immersion schools. Not surprisingly, the results show the benefits of learning in a language a child understands best. EMBLI children showed marked gains compared to the other children, especially in reading. While test results are only part of the picture, they are exciting for EMBLI as they provide quantitative evidence that MTB-MLE is effective. The results are particularly pleasing because the schools are located in remote areas, where children’s performance has traditionally lagged behind that of children in urban schools. One of the most conclusive pieces of evidence from the survey is that EMBLI has produced children who are independent readers by Grade 1 – a remarkable achievement considering the difficult physical conditions in which these children are expected to learn.

Fataluku reading books

EMBLI’s achievements overall in the last three years have been impressive. EMBLI has adopted the Two-Track Method for literacy teaching, advocated and adapted by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. This highly structured approach is used in many MTB-MLE programs around the world. It is based on a combination of meaning (i.e., understanding whole text) and accuracy (i.e., understanding and using word identification strategies).

The method appears to work well in low-resource settings where children come from pre-literate homes and parents cannot easily support their children’s literacy development. Despite the dilapidated conditions and lack of facilities in East Timorese public schools generally, EMBLI teachers make their classrooms welcoming places where children are exposed to attractive, colourful materials in their home language in the form of pictures, big books, activity books and readers that reflect images from their everyday life and cultural realities. Children’s own work also now brightens up the classroom walls.

Teaching aids made from local materials

In low-resource educational settings, teachers have no choice but to be creative. EMBLI teachers supplement professionally produced material with literacy and numeracy resources made from sticks and pebbles, coconut shells, palm leaves, seeds, cardboard, buttons and plastic bottles. For early writing the pre-school children often use slates, a cheap, sturdy, and easily renewable resource.

In addition to these models of sustainability, one of EMBLI’s greatest achievements in my view is its empowerment of teachers. EMBLI trainers report that since their involvement with the pilot, the teachers are happier, more confident and have a sense of agency. In this video teachers and students can be seen at work (note: the video is in the official languages, Tetun and Portuguese). The slogan on the T-shirts reads “I like learning in my mother tongue.”

The pilot teachers work in tandem with teaching assistants. Although this system is not particularly new in East Timor, previously the teaching assistant’s primary role was to keep order and this was often done by means of the stick rather than the carrot.  EMBLI has encouraged collaborative planning and team teaching as well as approaches to classroom management that respect children’s human rights.

Pre-school teacher helping a child with letter formation using a slate

EMBLI trainers make regular site visits and teachers also benefit from being able to attend mostly local workshops and seminars. Travel from the districts to Dili takes at least a full day and even to reach district centres, teachers often have to leave home before dawn and walk very long distances. EMBLI has shown that on-site teacher training is a viable and cost-effective alternative to training conducted in the capital.

EMBLI is also a model of how to build trust and sustain relationships with communities. Parents are supportive of the pilot as they are more able to interact with school and they see their children are learning to read and write. To date the EMBLI pilot has successfully put into practice three essential principles of MTB-MLE: promoting fluency in community and official languages, creating a supportive environment for literacy, and empowering teachers, learners and parents. As countries of the global South struggle to achieve effective universal primary education the EMBLI pilot provides a model of collaboration and sustainable practice. In its three-year life EMBLI has made a significant difference to children’s learning and the prospects for its future look bright. As they say in Tetun and Portuguese, Parabens! (Congratulations!)

Photos taken with permission by Kerry Taylor-Leech

Author Kerry Taylor-Leech

Kerry Taylor-Leech is a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics, TESOL and the teaching of second languages. She is based in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University. Her research is sociolinguistic, ethnographic and interdisciplinary in nature and explores language policy and planning, identity, education and literacy practices in multilingual settings. She has strong interests in all aspects of language and identity, especially in immigrant and postcolonial contexts. She is a co-editor of the international journal Current Issues in Language Planning. Visit for more.

More posts by Kerry Taylor-Leech
  • This REALLY makes one happy! Wonderful results, and, OF COURSE, exactly what many of us have said for many years. Congratulations!!

  • Miriam Faine

    It makes me happy too. But I am very wary of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, who are a fundamentalist Christian group who promote local languages, but at the same time have been accused of cultural genocide.

    • Kerry Taylor-Leech

      Hello Miriam, It’s important to be clear that the EMBLI mother-tongue pilot is not a SIL project. It is an East Timorese project. The decision to institute a pilot was taken by the MInistry of Education in consultation with UNESCO and the UNESCO National Education Commission in East Timor after a series of meetings with international experts from Australia and Portugal (none of whom were SIL members). There was also quite extensive public consultation and discussion with local NGOs and donor groups. SIL was not involved in any of these. But more important is the fact that the two-track method is a literacy teaching method — and not a doctrine. All the best.

  • Padraig Leyland

    Is the full report available as I am especially interested in the assessment tools used? Although the results are remarkable, I would like to know more.

    • Kerry Taylor-Leech

      Padraig, I understand that the full report will be released soon and will probably be available at the same link on the MInistry of Education website. I’m also keen to read it.

      • Padraig Leyland

        Many thanks Kerry for your response.

      • Padraig Leyland

        Kerry, have you seen the full report, no sign on MInistry of Education website?

        • Kerry Taylor-Leech

          Not yet Padraig but you’ve prompted me to ask. I’ll update here when I know something. Kerry


    This article really makes my day. ‘The benefits of learning in a language a child understands best’ is one powerful concept that I might have to give credit to. This practice is relatable to Indonesian context. As English is considered as Foreign Language, although many schools have taught English to their students, in which they might be considered as Second Language learner of English, many schools, especially those located in underdeveloped area in Indonesia, however, still have to struggle when it comes to teaching English to their students. Even making students to come to the school is a hard work for teachers, due to the very low literacy awareness of the students, and their parents. That is why reading this article really makes my day.


    It is enlightening. When Papua New Guinea (PNG) had reform in the 1990’s, a Language Policy was formulated. The Language Policy states that the Elementary-Elementary 2 (age 6-8) learn in L1. As students move into primary level, from grade 3-5, they learn in both ENGLISH and L1. As learners ascend the grades in primary school, the percentage of L1 decreases making way for English. Due to our language and cultural diversities, elementary schools situated in urban schools were taught in Tok Pisin-lingua franca. A huge percentage of our Elementary teachers work in very low resourced areas. Elementary teachers are locals who are well versed in local knowledge.

  • Gloria Christabel

    I am absolutely in awe of this model. A teacher’s motivation is key to ensuring a successful and effective classroom environment. I like how a teacher’s needs are looked into as well, and they are constantly trained. A low-resource environment could put quite the pressure on teachers as they need to find a way to design a syllabus that encompasses the lack of resources. However, the fact that the EMBLI is able to ensure teacher’s are constantly motivated, as this would reflect directly in their classroom practices.

    Another aspect that I found to be very interesting is the fact that students did extremely well even though they were learning in a low-resource environment, all because of the learning strategies that were employed. This clearly demonstrates that one does not have to have the most expensive resources to establish an effective and successful learning and teaching environment. Sometimes, the little things matter the most.

    • Kerry Taylor-Leech

      My thoughts exactly Gloria. When you see the pride and pleasure on the teachers’ faces when the EMBLI trainers arrive to visit them, you feel quite emotional. EMBLI’s regular on-site visits help the teachers in these remote places feel supported; they know that someone cares about them and thinks what they are doing is important. Politicians could learn a lot from this approach. Some teachers are quite unconfident and they get a real boost when the trainers spend time with them and praise their efforts. Thanks for posting. Kerry

  • Brendan Kavanagh

    Very interesting project. I would like to see this type of thing done more here in the Northern Territory with local Indigenous languages. It is a great way to contextualise learning resources that learners can engage with, rather than imposing a foreign context with little relevance.

    More importantly, the increasing number of resources in local language help to boost the language’s status, recognition and overall value, rather than sidelining it as a ‘minority language’ at risk of extinction.

    Best of luck. I know how challenging it can be to work in bare minimum conditions. My hat goes off to the teachers for their persistence and creativity.

    • Kerry Taylor-Leech

      Mine too Brendan. The teachers are often so young and working for almost nothing. They show such commitment to the children. The ones that also impress me are the older teachers who have to overcome a different experience of teaching altogether. The EMBLI monitoring visits are critical to sustaining the pedagogic model and keeping teachers on track, as well as encouraging them to keep going. Kerry

  • Deepak Bhandari

    The situation of East Timour somehow resembles the situation of Nepal. Nepal is also a country where the literacy rate is around 70 percent and there are about 123 different dialects. So, in my view Nepal also need EMBLI tutors to make the children more easy to understand the text in their perspective.

  • 44277660

    Thank you for such an impressive article. I even get more impressed when watching the video to see vividly what the teachers and students actually do in class. Their work is so amazing. I used to be a voluntary teacher in a mountainous area in my home country where I worked in low-resource setting like this so I somehow understand how mental and physical demanding it is. Reading this article really brightens up my day and makes me get itchy feet. Can’t wait to go there again and try the two-track method and making teaching aids from local materials.

  • Hayu Austina

    I am so happy to read this article. Congratulations on the success of EMBLI project. There are 3 inspiring aspects about this project. First, the use of mother-tongue is an accessible bridge connecting what the students learn at school with what they experience or face in their community. Secondly, it is great that the teachers explore their creativity to create learning materials from the environment. And the third is about the involvement of the teachers in this pilot project that will give them experience and more sense of belonging to develop it.

  • Yeji LEE

    Thanks to this article, I get a chance to think about how the education can be done and work in low-resource environment. Due to the development of technology nowadays, many teachers including me are trying to find out how to apply the up-to-date facilities and technologies to the class and teaching. Of course, it can be helpful in some ways. However, this EMBLI project in East Timor makes me realize that making use of the local things and something just around us can also be great resources for the education. What is familiar to learners can help them most to learn better!

  • S_A_

    Thank you for this informative article, I really enjoyed reading it. I love reading about positive educational experiences and I’m glad the program EMBLI is so successful. The sentence “in low-resource educational settings, teachers have no choice but to be creative” really spoke to me as I am a big advocate for teachers as well to get creative and use materials that are familiar to the students, since it makes such an enriching experience for teachers.