Timor-Leste (East Timor) is to amend its education law to enforce the use of Portuguese in schools.
The young nation’s minister of Education Armindo Maia announced that changes would be made to the 2008 Basic Education Law to ensure schools are using Portuguese, alongside their native Austronesian language, Tetun.
“We will change the law related to education to force students and teachers to use Portuguese during lessons,” he said, expressing concern that most schools in the country do not make use of the language, despite its official status. “At present, 80% of students and teachers do not use Portuguese in class,” Maia added.
In 2020, the Timor government initiated a liaison with Portugal to implement a Pro-Portuguese Project, aimed at training its teachers in the adopted language. Some schools took drastic measures in encouraging the use of Portuguese and began to impose fines on students who were not seen to be communicating in the language.
Timor-Leste was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and many cultural references to the European country remain. However, according to the 2010 census, as few as 600 citizens were declared native speakers of the language. When Timor-Leste gained full independence in 2002, primary languages included Tetun, Mambai, and Makasae, with little sign of Portuguese being revitalized.
Two decades later, the decision to enforce Portuguese is met with conflicting views, as many teachers are questioning how their students will perform when taught in Portuguese.
Roberto Fernandez, a teacher at St. Francis Assisi School in Fatuberliu said he backs the decision to increase the use of Portuguese, but claimed teachers would need support and resources to do so effectively. “We need a lot of time to adjust to Portuguese. This is still a challenge for us here,” he said.
Fernandez added that not all teachers in his school were fluent or familiar with Portuguese, and that teachers in remote areas in particular would need extra help. He added, “Maybe it would take decades more for all schools to fully adopt the Portuguese language.”
Hiron Goncalves, a student at the National University of Timor-Leste, said she uses Portuguese in the classroom “but it is more because of force.”
“It is the formal language we use in class, while once out we use Tetum and Indonesian,” she added.
The government and education ministry of Timor-Leste cite potential economic benefits from other Portuguese-speaking countries as an incentive to enforce Portuguese in education.