Identity Crisis

In a previous post, I talked briefly about how Timor’s history of colonialism had drastically affected the meaning of beauty in this country. For about 500 years, Timor-Leste has been controlled by others, and this has influenced their language, customs, and perspectives of other peoples. Almost 20 years since independence, you could call the current stage in their development as their identity crisis.

I’m going to focus on language, as that is an incredibly powerful human tool, and insanely important in Timor. Over 15 different languages are spoken here, on a piece of land the size of Connecticut. The two official tongues are Tetum, a local language, and Portuguese, the imperialist’s language. The idea of keeping Portuguese as one of the main languages was, in the beginning, to connect Timor with the outside world. Speaking Portuguese means access to materials and media, more advanced educational opportunities, a seat in international relations, and a foot in the door with all the other Portuguese speaking countries around the world.

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From the Resistance Museum in Dili, which tells the story of Timor’s independence

If you Google the language Tetum, you’ll find a Wikipedia page and the only two language sources available on the planet: one from the Peace Corps, and another from the Dili Institute of Technology. Basically, their very own language, despite it being their own, is hardly recognizable. People who come here would rather speak Portuguese or Bahasa Indonesia, rather than learn the language spoken most frequently island-wide.

Another confusing aspect I have found with languages here in Timor-Leste is that from a young age, Timorese are often straddling four or five languages at once. There is first and foremost, Tetum. Then, because about 90% of their television comes from Indonesia, they learn Bahasa. Many people with phones keep the language set as Bahasa, as it is somewhat similar to Tetum. English is up and coming, due to large populations of development workers from Australia, the USA, and New Zealand coming in. Later, when kids start their school years, their entire curriculum is in Portuguese. To top it off, they grow up in homes where the local district or village dialect is spoken. These local dialects are an important piece of cultural identity, and are threatened with being lost with new generations

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Now, this is impressive. To be Timorese is to be a polyglot—but tell a local how cool they are for knowing so many languages, and they will shake their head. You know why? Because the rest of the world doesn’t value their way of speaking. They are aware that languages like English are the international language of choice, and that to get a good job in their own country they need to know Portuguese and English. Why bother preserving local languages when to survive they just need to learn the languages of foreigners? Definitely puts me in a weird place, when I teach three English classes a week.

Tetum is the local language of choice—it showcases pride and identity, and has been a way for the Timorese to reclaim their country. Language defines who people are and where they come from. In Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, Noah states, “A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’” The most important part of integrating as a Peace Corps volunteer is being able to speak as the locals do. Talk their talk, so to speak. In Timor, you hardly ever see a white person going around speaking Tetum, let alone Tokodede or Mumbae or Wai’mea. The faces of shock I still get from locals when I speak their language is one that always brings out a smile or a laugh. I speak their language—so, I am one of them, in a manner of speaking (totally inadvertent pun).

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I love reminding the Timorese of how awesome Tetum is—especially because it is a particularly easy language to master. However, Tetum is fairly underdeveloped as a language. There are a lot of borrowed words from Portuguese and Bahasa. This probably is a contributing factor to the whole ‘You silly American, Tetum is not that great. Gimme a plate of English already!’ But again, why is their own language a mixed-up mash-up of languages from historical oppressors? #Imperialism. Much of their language has been forgotten and eroded over the centuries of foreigners coming in and taking it apart.

This whole identity crisis is critical in Timor’s development as a nation. Are they going to participate more in the Asian markets, working primarily in Bahasa? Are they going to remain in the network of other former Portuguese colonies, and have access to the European Union, working in Portuguese? Or are they going to focus on becoming a tourist destination, and have the next-door Australians come, pushing them to focus on English speaking skills? And on top of all this, are they going to focus on developing their own economy, working in their own local languages?

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A lot of languages have gotten lost over the years, anywhere around the world. That is just the way of it, because in the end language is a tool (though I would argue that the more the better—I love languages). Language connects or divides. It steers the direction of economies and education and healthcare. Right now, it is one hell of a stew brewing in terms of language in Timor. Only time will tell where it goes next.

Peace out,


Disclaimer: The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Timor-Leste Government.

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