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The symbiosis of documentation, description and pedagogy: A case study of East Timor mother tongue education

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Title: The symbiosis of documentation, description and pedagogy: A case study of East Timor mother tongue education
Authors: Heston, Tyler
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: The crucial importance of language documentation, description and pedagogy to one another cannot be overestimated, not only for the revitalization of languages that are no longer spoken, but also for basic literacy education in underdocumented languages. Obtaining access to education in their native language is of great value to children, but even basic literacy development, such as the creation of an efficient orthography, can be near impossible in the absence of linguistic research. This presentation is a progress report on a mother tongue literacy program being piloted in the nation of East Timor, giving an overview of the current status of this program and showing how linguistic research and pedagogy can collaborate to mutual benefit in the context of underdocumented languages around the world.

East Timor, a relatively new republic established in 2002 in island Southeast Asia, is home to approximately 15-20 indigenous languages, both Austronesian and Papuan (Hajek, 2000; Lewis et al. 2013). Over half of these are listed in the Catalog of Endangered Languages at varying degrees of endangerment (Endangered Languages), and the large majority remain highly underdocumented. Until recently, education has generally taken place in the languages of occupying nations, such as Portuguese and Indonesian, or Tetun Dili—a local Austronesian-based creole used as a lingua franca across the country. However, these languages are only spoken natively by only a fraction of the population (Lewis et al. 2013), which can make it challenging for other children to excel in school.

To better support the children who speak indigenous languages, the government has begun to implement a mother tongue literacy program, with the goals of additive bilingualism and biliteracy. In this program, children will learn to read in their own native language first, learning to read Tetun and Portuguese in later grades (Language in Education Working Group). This program has enormous potential, but since most of the indigenous languages of Timor remain unwritten and undocumented, the development of basic literacy materials has proven challenging. The main focus of this presentation is to show how language documentation and description can benefit work on education, as well as how they can be benefitted in return. The linguistic situation in East Timor is far from atypical, and the mother tongue program in East Timor provides an excellent case study of the challenges and successes that can accompany a program of education in an underdocumented language.


Endangered Languages. 2012. The Linguist List at Eastern Michigan University and The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Hajek, John. 2000. Towards a language history of East Timor. Quaderni del Dipartimento di Linguistica - Università di Firenze 10. 213–227.

Language in Education Working Group. 2010. Mother tongue-based multilingual education for Timor Leste: National Policy. Dili: Komisaun Nasional Edukasaun Timor Leste & Ministry of Education.

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, eds. 2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 17th ed. Dallas: SIL International.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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