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Timor Leste teachers make unwilling language students

Government insists that teachers learn Portuguese

Timor Leste teachers make unwilling language students

Education Minister Bendito dos Santos Freitas insists learning Portuguese must remain a priority

Thomas Ora, Dili
Timor Leste

October 29, 2013

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Like many of his Timor Leste colleagues, Fernando da Costa, an elementary school teacher in the mountainous district of Aileu, has struggled to learn Portuguese.

“It is a difficult language to learn,” says da Costa, a 49-year-old father of seven who has spent 13 years teaching at the state-run Remexio Elementary School in Aileu, south of the capital Dili.

The country’s 2010 census shows that nearly 90 percent of the population use the native Tetum language in their daily life. An estimated 35 percent are fluent Indonesian language users and just 23.5 percent speak, read and write the Portuguese language. But since 2003, the Timor Leste government has made learning Portuguese mandatory for teachers.

They are required to take a course, which normally runs from October to December. Fernando da Costa has been attending it since 2005. “Of what I have learned in the past seven years, I can remember only little,” he says.

Junior high school teacher Joao Reis da Cruz is another reluctant student. He claims the program is ineffective as it has not been reviewed in 10 years.

“As a result, teachers are not motivated to go beyond mere completion of the government requirement,” he says.

While Portuguese is not new to Timor Leste – the half-island nation was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century – a very small percentage of people spoke the language when it became the world’s newest country in 2002.  After independence, the fledgling nation’s constitution established Portuguese and Tetum as official languages, with English and Indonesian as working languages.

Most official documents are written in Portuguese but it has yet to find widespread acceptance and use. In 2009, a World Bank report noted that “Portuguese was spoken by only five percent of the population, and few younger teachers understand the materials.”

Still, the government remains adamant that Portuguese should be seen as a key element in education.

“The use of Portuguese has been stated in the constitution,” says Caitano Oliveira, 52, an official at the Education Ministry and a Portuguese lecturer at a private institution in Dili.

He says Portuguese has been made an official language because of the potential economic benefits of working with other Portuguese speaking countries.

“We can get support from Europe through Portugal, can connect with Latin America through Brazil and with Africa through Mozambique,” he says.

Education Minister Bendito dos Santos Freitas maintains that Portuguese for teachers remains a priority, but adds that they can learn at their own pace.

“No time limit for teachers as to when they have to master Portuguese. Constant learning of the language is what matters most,” he says.

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