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Tetun akadémiku: University lecturers’ roles in the intellectualisation of Tetum


In this article I examine lecturers’ beliefs about the use of Tetum for academic, scientific and vocational communication at university in Timor-Leste and discuss the discursive and performative language planning roles that they play in the intellectualisation of the language. Drawing on analysis of recorded discussions among university lecturers from different disciplinary areas and distinct institutional settings, I identify a range of discursive and ideological forces being brought to bear on the use of Tetum to communicate disciplinary and professional knowledge. I focus especially on lecturers’ value-laden explanations for how and why they ‘mix’ Tetum with Portuguese, English and Indonesian in particular contexts of classroom communication. Lecturers’ statements about the limitations of Tetum for academic and scientific communication, while grounded in the real need for coordinated intellectualisation of the language, also mask lecturers’ individual preferences for (and greater confidence in) the use of more established ‘academic languages’, stemming from their own past experiences of language socialisation. I argue that these negative beliefs about the potential reach of Tetum reinforce hegemonic discourses that work against its coordinated intellectualisation. Meanwhile, significant individual efforts towards the intellectualisation of Tetum endure in the form of innovative translation and translanguaging work; efforts that I argue require greater attention and support. I conclude with a discussion about the need to recognise and value the expertise and contributions of multiple stakeholders in the development and intellectualisation of the Tetum language, including those who are not traditionally understood as ‘language experts’.

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  1. That is, Tetum Dili or Tetum Prasa, the national lingua franca of Timor-Leste and co-official language (with Portuguese). There are multiple orthographies in use for Tetum, and there is disagreement over the spelling of many words, including ‘Tetum’ (/‘Tetun’). In this article, I use the orthography that is sanctioned by the Instituto Nacional Linguistica (National Linguistics Institute, or INL). See Williams-van Klinken and Hajek (2016) for a helpful discussion of the heterogeneous nature of the Tetum language.

  2. …and, also, Spanish, which is the language of instruction for the six-year Bachelor of Medicine delivered via the Cuban medical training program (Anderson 2013). This is further complicated by English being the language of instruction for post-graduate medical education in Timor-Leste, which is supported by Australian Aid (RACS 2020).

  3. It was not made clear what exactly this lecturer meant by ‘model’ except that it referred to text books and reference materials for petroleum and that a clear comparison was being drawn between those published in Indonesian and those published in Portuguese: Se ita fó model Bahasa, ida-ne′e maizumenus di′ak liu duke ita fó sira model Portugés [‘If we give them [the students] the Indonesian model, this is more or less better than if we gave them the Portuguese model’]—see “Appendix A”.

  4.  = practical activities and experiments.

  5. ‘Correct’, that is, according to formal language planning efforts in the form of Tetum dictionaries produced by the INL. See, for example, Guterres Correia (2005, p. 576).

  6. Tetum Dili is an interchangeably used name for Tetun Prasa, the form of Tetum that developed in the Timorese capital, Dili with strong linguistic influences from the Indigenous languages Tetun Terik and Mambai, as well as colonial Portuguese (see: Hull and Eccles 2001, p. 234). Tetum Dili/Tetun Prasa refer to the ‘standard’ form of Tetum that is now used as a lingua franca widely in Timor-Leste, though its most concentrated use remains in the capital. For this reason, one might also translate this lecturer’s comment as ‘our standard Tetum is mixed’, even as he has just said ‘we don’t yet have a standard’ using an Indonesian loan for the word ‘standard’. Thus shot through with and complicated by colonial echoes is the Tetum language.

  7. I evoke this metaphor prompted by Prof. R’s use of the Tetum preposition ho [with].

  8. naiv is most likely borrowed from the Indonesian naif, though it may also be borrowed from the English ‘naïve’, which highlights the influence of an individual’s plurilingual repertoire on the practice of extending Tetum’s range via the use of loan words.


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The research on which this paper is based was funded in part by a doctoral dissertation grant provided by The International Research Foundation for English Language Education (TIRF).

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Appendix A: ‘Whether we want to or not, we continue to write using Indonesian’

Appendix A: ‘Whether we want to or not, we continue to write using Indonesian’

Excerpted from a transcription of a recorded focus group discussion with petroleum lecturers.

Excerpt begins at [01:35:40].

Cited data include Prof. A’s comment about Tetum’s lack of technical language [01:38:00], his claim that ‘whether we want to or not, we continue to write using Indonesian’ [01:38:20], and his claim that the Indonesian ‘model’ of reference materials is better than the Portuguese model [01:39:10].

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Newman, T. Tetun akadémiku: University lecturers’ roles in the intellectualisation of Tetum. Lang Policy 20, 77–98 (2021).

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  • Language planning
  • Language ideology
  • Multilingual education
  • Minority language
  • Academic language
  • Higher education
  • Timor-Leste
  • Disciplinary communication