International Mother Language Day is celebrated annually to promote linguistic and cultural diversity. In East Timor, Mother Language Day 2011 provided the perfect opportunity to launch a new national education policy document promoting the use of children’s mother tongues in the classroom.
Let me begin with a thumbnail sketch of the language situation: The East Timorese Constitution of 2002 declares Portuguese and Tetum to be the co-official languages with Indonesian and English as working languages. The indigenous languages are declared national languages but they have no official status. The reasons for this decision lie in the colonial history of East Timor. It was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years and Indonesia occupied the territory in 1975 at the moment of decolonisation from Portugal. Hence, these two exogenous languages have well established roots in East Timor. A growing number of East Timorese also speak English, the language of tourism, trade, the United Nations and the aid industry, present in the country since the exit of the Indonesians in 1999. Tetum was originally a contact language which came to symbolise national identity during the Indonesian occupation, especially after the Indonesian colonisers banned the use of Portuguese. Beneath this layer of dominant languages adopted by the state lies a complex network of some 30 indigenous language varieties.
This is the broader linguistic context in which the new national education policy is embedded. Along with other international advisers from Australia and Europe, I was invited to provide advice on the formulation of the new policy.
Until now, East Timorese teachers have been expected to use Portuguese as the language of instruction along with Tetum as a pedagogic aide. Although Tetum is spoken widely as a first or second language, it is not known in all parts of the country. Moreover, few teachers are confident in Portuguese and it is mainly affluent, urban, middle class families that know this language. One consequence of this policy is that many children have been expected to learn in a language they do not understand or use, and they have not been achieving the desired literacy results. Grade repetition and school dropout are also alarmingly high. Literacy amongst East Timorese primary-age school children is so low that the Ministry of Education is now considering the use of local languages for teaching in pre-primary and primary schools to help children acquire the basic foundations for literacy development in their first language and to address some of the reasons for the high rate of school dropout.
The new policy direction is an exciting and brave initiative. Relatively few independent countries of the South have broken the norm of adopting the former colonial language as the medium of instruction or succeeded in breaking the vicious cycle of subtractive bilingualism and low educational achievement leading in turn to continued low literacy levels. The policy document sets out guidelines for using home languages for initial instruction with the gradual introduction of Tetum and Portuguese and the later addition of Indonesian and English while maintaining the home languages in the system for as long as possible.
In another posting here on Language on the Move, the blogger, Md. Ali Khan, passionately argues that in situations of extreme poverty and low human development it is a luxury for foreign advisors to talk of maintaining children’s first languages. I understand his scepticism about foreign advisers who promote idealistic notions in situations they themselves do not have to live, let alone educate their children. However, I believe advisers have much to offer provided they share their knowledge in an equitable, ethical way. There is increasing evidence showing that children whose first languages are well developed acquire literacy skills in both first and additional languages more easily. There is also evidence that children taught in the languages they know best develop their numeracy skills better than those who are not. This evidence is now coming from countries of the South as well as from the North. Literate and numerate citizens are better equipped to participate in the public life and the political affairs of their country. A literate population has better access to information about health, nutrition and maintaining wellbeing. When children learn in languages they know, they are more likely to remain in school and parents are often more willing to send their children to school. Strong multilingualism and literacy offer a way to break the cycle of underachievement and low education levels, offering a way out of poverty and a pathway towards active citizenship.
At the policy document launch I presented a seminar on the features and benefits of mother tongue-based multilingual education. My main message was that by using and valorising children’s home languages and cultures in the classroom, teachers can promote social inclusion and contribute to peaceful nation building. If the policy document is passed by the Council of Ministers, the stage will be set for children to acquire early literacy in the languages of the home. East Timor took its first steps toward achieving mother tongue-based multilingual education on this historic Mother Language Day, 2011. I am proud to have played a small part in it.