East Timor’s two official languages are Tetum and Portuguese, but at least sixteen languages are spoken there. English and Bahasa Indonesia are also recognised as important working languages especially if East Timor is to develop its economy. Improving education and literacy is obviously the key, but East Timor’s learning system is failing to keep children at school, especially in the early years. East Timor’s former first lady, Australian-born Kirsty Sword-Gusmao, is Co-Chair of the National Education Commission and the Goodwill Ambassador for Education.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speakers: Kirsty Sword-Gusmao, Co-Chair National Education Commission, and Goodwill Ambassador for Education
GUSMAO: Putting in place a system of nine years basic compulsory free education, implementing that is obviously somewhat of a challenge, but the fact that that has been set as a standard and as a goal is I think very important. There’s been a lot done in the area of professional development of teachers, which is a huge priority in terms of being able to provide quality education to the entire nation. So yes, there have been some steps forward, but still a very long way to go. What specifically the National Education Commission is looking at the moment is basically working out a policy, a language and education policy which is drawing on not only Timor Leste’s very complex linguistic panorama and the reality of its circumstances, but also looking at best practice and experience around the world in terms of language of instruction in schools. We’re looking a little more specifically at what the role of the 16 other national languages, in addition to Tetum there are about 16 other languages spoken across the country. And we know from the research that UNESCO has done over 50 years, and that many other countries have done within their own nations, children often learn more quickly to read and write when they learn in the language that is spoken in their home. And so for the vast majority of Timorese kids that is one of those 16 languages. In some cases, particularly in the urban areas, it might be Tetum.
LAM: So in other words it’s important for East Timorese children to master their own mother tongue before going on?
GUSMAO: Exactly, exactly and this is not another anti-Portuguese initiative, where children learn to read and write and have a solid foundation in their mother tongue. We know that they will acquire second, third, fourth and fifth languages with greater facility, and will speak and use those languages better and with greater proficiency in the future.
LAM: And from your observation do East Timorese children have the facility or indeed a leaning towards learning foreign languages, are they interested?
GUSMAO: It’s a very interesting landscape there. Timorese people have a tremendous ability to acquire other languages, it’s a polyglot society, so I think there is huge potential there in terms of being able to assist children to build really strong multicultural, multi-lingual society. But we need to make sure that we get it right in the early years of primary education.
LAM: I’ve also noted the importance placed on Chinese. Now I think many of our listeners are not aware that Chinese is actually spoken in albeit very small parts, but certainly spoken in East Timor?
GUSMAO: Yes that’s right, there is a very strong Chinese presence and has been for a very long time in Timor Leste. I think for reasons of Timor Leste’s place in the world it’s very important that we consider whether or not Mandarin be spoken perhaps as an elective the secondary school years. The focus of the work that the National Education Commission is doing now though is very much on basic education, so that early years of education looking at what languages children should be taught in at the time that they acquire basic literacy skills. So when they learn to read and write.
LAM: And of course children can’t learn to read and write without a full tummy so poverty alleviation is key to education, how are you doing on that front?
GUSMAO: Absolutely there’s so many factors affecting how children learn and their physical wellbeing is an important one. The government with the help of the World Food Program has put in place a school feeding program, which does provide primary school age children with a meal. There are difficulties logistically with rolling that out across the country, but there are efforts being made in that regard. But obviously the long term solution is to provide jobs and provide economic opportunities for families to be able to feed their large families.
‘Improving Timor’s language education’
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Muitas dúvidas e alguma apreensão … Após 15 anos de ensino/investigação, trabalho directo com crianças e e professores, particular interesse pela realidade timorense – em observação, não me parece que a coisa seja assim tão simples …