Linguistic convenience was sacrificed to politics and sentiment. In a nation that had never governed itself and had few cultural symbols to unite it, this language of resistance to the Indonesian occupiers was an emblem — particularly to the older generation — of freedom and national identity.
Along with a struggle to provide health care, education, government services, jobs and even food for its people, East Timor is now on a crash course to learn its own official language, importing scores of teachers from Portugal to help.
“I have finished two levels of Portuguese, but I still don’t speak it well, just basic Portuguese,” said Zacharias da Costa, 36, a lecturer in conflict management at the National University of East Timor.
The imposition of new national languages happens when countries are colonized and it happens when they decolonize, he said. Sometimes, as in East Timor, it happens a second time when they decolonize again.
East Timor’s language problems are those of many countries that decree a language shift, complicating the daily business of the nation and cutting off its people from their history and literature, which has been written in what may well become an alien language.
East Timor’s courts are among the hardest-hit institutions. Translations back and forth among Portuguese, Tetum and Indonesian produce a game of telephone in which outside monitors say testimony is often distorted.
The United Nations reported in 2002 that only 5 percent of the population of 800,000 spoke Portuguese. In the 2004 census, 36 percent said they had “a capability in Portuguese,” said Kerry Taylor-Leech, a linguist at Griffith University in Australia who has written about the languages of East Timor. “Since the 1990s, you’ll see that a language shift has taken place,” she said. “The changes from what I see are taking place quite rapidly.”
The new Constitution establishes Portuguese and Tetum as the country’s two official languages, but Tetum is seen as thin and undeveloped, and most of the nation’s official business is conducted in Portuguese.
“This is a political decision and I have to implement it, like it or not,” said Judge Maria Pereira, a Dili District Court judge who has taken crash courses and now writes her decisions in what she calls fairly good Portuguese. “I have no choice. As a judge I have to implement the law.”
Some young Indonesian speakers, who had at first opposed the use of Portuguese, now say they embrace it as a means of enriching and developing Tetum. Already as much as 80 percent of Tetum is made up of Portuguese loan words or Portuguese-influenced words, Ms. Taylor-Leech said, although she said speaking Portuguese was unlikely to increase this number.