Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 01:32 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 01:32 | SYDNEY

Closing the language divide in Timor-Leste

27 June 2011 13:27

Gordon Peake worked in Timor-Leste from 2007-11. He is Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University.

I can still remember my first teenage disco and how, well, just plain awkward I felt. I wanted to interact with these mysterious creatures called girls but I just couldn't find the words to express myself, or summon up the courage to talk to them, never mind ask them for a dance. I often (unhappily) think back to my adolescent uselessness when I see international 'capacity-builders' and their Timorese 'counterparts' try to interact with each other.

There is a large cultural and financial gap between international staff and Timorese, but it is exacerbated by the fact that, many times, they simply can't talk to each other.

The official languages in Timor-Leste are Portuguese and Tetun, with the latter being the lingua franca (and Indonesian being widely spoken). Although many higher-ups in Government institutions have very good English, only a small minority of the population, and the public service, speaks the language to a good standard.

And yet, oddly, the ability to speak or a preparedness to learn Tetun is not a prerequisite for a job as a technical adviser or aid guru in Timor-Leste. Few relationships can develop without the ability to interact, discuss and stew over new ideas, and this relatively obvious fact is ignored time and time again. No one would expect a Timorese police officer or public servant that spoke no English to be successful in effecting change in Canberra, Wellington or other capitals.

Millions have been spent already on hiring international experts that speak no Tetun, to effect change within Timorese institutions, including by those funded from the Australian aid program. All too often, it is the few English-speaking Timorese officials that are sought out as counterparts — who, given their language skills, often tend to be pulled in many directions and not likely to have the time or need to be 'capacity built'. Documents are not translated as a matter of course, but sent out in the (frequently vain) hope that someone who speaks English will pick them up.

The Australian Defence Cooperation Program that works with the Timorese army prioritizes language development for staff prior to deployment to country. Before diplomatic staff get posted to Dili, many now receive up to one year's language training. This is sensible and commendable. 

The fact that others do not follow their lead makes little sense. Not only does it limit the ability for subject experts to convey their skills to their Timorese counterparts, the experts will inevitably have less understanding of the context in which they work if they cannot read the local newspaper, watch the local news or talk to people in the local community.

Last week, the Timorese Government signaled that it was fed up with this expensive dialogue of the deaf. The Council of Ministers passed a resolution calling on the UN and EU to 'promote, immediately and by all means, the systematic use of Timor-Leste's Official Languages', including sending official communication in Tetun and/or Portuguese (rather than English). International advisers will receive Tetun language training. 

Australia was not mentioned explicitly in the resolution, but it should take note. Defence and Foreign Affairs have taken the lead. Other agencies should follow. One solution may lie in longer-term contracts and financial disincentives for not learning the language. Receiving the same amount of money whether one makes an effort or not makes no sense whatsoever.

How about the idea of five-year contracts, with the last four years contingent upon passing a stringent language test? I got tired of hearing some in the expat set in Dili guffaw that 'there's no way we're going to learn the language' — they would change their tune quickly if it hit them in the pocket. 

Photo by Flickr user lethaargic.