Nov 13, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Nov 5, 2018

Letting go of Indonesian

Letting go of Indonesian

Marie Quinn

    Two primary school girls in their uniforms
    Hedda Haugen-Askland

For more than 20 years in East Timor official correspondence and documentation, media, schooling and public life were all conducted in Indonesian. By the time East Timor had achieved independence from Indonesia in 1999 the majority of younger East Timorese could speak, read and write Indonesian fluently. A whole generation of educated East Timorese had attended university in Indonesia and used Indonesian as their professional language. But since independence the position of Indonesian has changed. The population has had to readjust to a new language policy which prioritises the development of Tetum and the use of Portuguese as the languages of higher education and government.

Choice of official languages

The official languages of independent East Timor are Portuguese, the language of its former coloniser, and the indigenous language, Tetum. With the realisation of independence, it was important for the new nation to distinguish itself from its former coloniser and, with the trauma of the Indonesian occupation still at the forefront of people’s lives, it was politically impossible to adopt Indonesian as the official language of public life. Portuguese was the language of the resistance movement during the occupation. As such, it was a more acceptable choice of official language for East Timor’s new leaders despite Indonesian being spoken by a much larger section of the population.

With the trauma of the Indonesian occupation still at the forefront of people’s lives, it was politically impossible to adopt Indonesian as the official language of public life

In conjunction with Portuguese, the East Timorese leadership chose to assume Tetum as a national language. Tetum, a local language employed by the Portuguese administrators and traders for use in Dili, was adopted by the Catholic Church to celebrate Mass and other rituals in Indonesian-controlled East Timor. As most East Timorese are Catholic, Tetum accordingly spread across the country. Based on the most recent census results (2004), 86 per cent of the population over the age of six has some capacity in Tetum, with high levels of use across all ages. This contrasts with the population’s capacity to speak Portuguese, which is confined to only 37 per cent of the population. Those who speak Portuguese are mainly people aged between 10 and 24 years.

According to East Timor’s constitution, both Indonesian and English are assigned official roles as ‘working languages’. These are defined as languages given a particular status to assist in interactions with neighbouring countries and to foster business interests. This policy means that while the languages of official documentation are Portuguese and Tetum, many training and education resources produced by NGOs and the Ministries appear in Indonesian. Indeed, many of the more highly educated East Timorese working in NGOs or for government departments slip quickly into Indonesian when discussing technical concepts, using Indonesian words and concepts to elaborate and explain English or Portuguese terminology.

Mixed abilities

In the 2004 census, the cohort most fluent in Indonesian is identified as those aged between 15 to 34 years of age (today aged between 19 and 39). These individuals are working, raising families, completing post secondary education and looking for leadership roles within the local and wider community. They are the group best placed to develop and encourage language and literacy skills in the next generation. Ironically, they have to do this at a time when their strongest language, Indonesian, has no place in the primary curricula.

While Indonesian is still used as the medium of instruction for the final years of secondary school and for tertiary education, younger students are not being taught the skills needed for a high level of competency in Indonesian. Those who can speak Indonesian rely on what they learnt during the occupation or what they pick up in their everyday lives. After independence, a common complaint voiced by tertiary educators is the diminishing competence of students in understanding and using Indonesian. The loss of an estimated 80 per cent of the Indonesian teachers in 1999 and the subsequent collapse of the education system had an immense impact on language teaching for Indonesian. The government policy of promoting Portuguese and – though not as strongly – Tetum has meant that all resources available for language training have gone into these new official languages. This policy does not acknowledge that the Timorese population built up skills in Indonesian over 25 years and has resulted in a lack of language competency overall.

The ready availability of Indonesian products such as Supermie noodles and Klin washing powder provides some continuity of written Indonesian in the community

Another difficulty is posed by the fact that those who were educated in the Indonesian system are not used to reading and writing in Tetum. Because Tetum historically was an oral rather than written language, educated Timorese often need to vocalise the words in order to understand their meaning when presented with written Tetum. This is not the case with Indonesian as people learnt this language in both its oral and written forms.

Those who grew up during the Indonesian occupation are also less likely than other sections of the population to have access to the large-scale Portuguese language programs. These programs operate in formal education settings such as schools and colleges and in some government ministries and as such are often unavailable to this cohort of the population. Some Timorese educated during the Indonesian occupation have access to the government ministry training programs depending on their seniority and their interest in learning Portuguese, but many of the Indonesian-educated Timorese feel that they are too old to start learning a new language. The implication is that highly educated East Timorese risk being excluded from official positions that require official language competency at a time of their lives when they might be the most productive and motivated for work and education.

Need for Indonesian?

Indonesian is, however, surviving in everyday contexts in East Timor, if with diminishing impact. As Sloman describes in this edition, Indonesian television remains popular, ensuring that the language is still heard. Numbers up to ten are still referred to in Indonesian, although the use of Portuguese is growing. Market vendors often use the Indonesian ‘satu dolar’ for one dollar and the Portuguese ‘dois dolar’ for two dollars. Fifty cents is generally described using the Indonesian-derived ‘lima puluh cen’ (for centavos). The ready availability of Indonesian products such as Supermie noodles and Klin washing powder provides some continuity of written Indonesian in the community.

The proximity of Indonesia, the fact that East Timorese families are spread across the border and the relationships built up over time with Indonesians amount to a compelling argument for the continued use of Indonesian in East Timor. Moreover, for the East Timorese who might find the money to send their children to university, Indonesia is often the obvious choice. Ten years after the referendum there is, however, an increased risk that East Timorese students may not have sufficient language competency to access or pass tertiary courses in Indonesia (see Bexley this edition). The designation of Indonesian as a ‘working language’ may also be meaningless if East Timorese individuals cannot communicate effectively in Indonesian for business purposes. In short, it seems as if the opportunity to build on the wealth of knowledge of Indonesian is being systemically overlooked.     ii

Marie Quinn (mariemtjq@yahoo.com.au) has worked in various areas of formal and non-formal education in East Timor since 2001. She is currently conducting her PhD at the University of Melbourne, examining the use of languages in primary school classrooms in East Timor.


Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009



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