Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tetum lessons complete

After five months, I completed 53 chapters (and the book) of Tetum language training with my tutor earlier this month. I was quite relieved to finish. The cultural values of my Tutor were often too much for me to bear although on our last day together, I felt a bit sad that we were parting company. I’d grown fond of him in a funny kind of way although I knew that we could never move on to a friendship. Not long before our final lesson he told me that his wife’s father had died and that members of her father’s family of origin demanded that he buy a buffalo and a horse out of respect (his mother-in-law and her family didn’t want my tutor to do this so who were the animals for – the uncle-in-laws?). A buffalo is the most expensive (and important) animal in Timor and costs about $500 and a horse about half that. My tutor simply doesn’t have that kind of money and has refused to do as his uncle-in-laws want. Again, the clash between the traditional and the modern elements of Timorese society is at play here. My tutor is an educated urban dweller without access to animals or vast sums of cash to purchase them. A rural dweller might just hand over some of his livestock without much to lose but when you don’t have animals and you have to buy them, well, you have to go into debt which is what many Timorese do to their great detriment (see A culture of dependence). It was one of the few moments where I was proud of my tutor taking a stand against outmoded traditions and customs that no longer serve a purpose and in fact, in his case, would make his life (and that of his young family) harder.

Daniel and I are now going to teach ourselves Tetum with the help of the CDs we purchased at great expense from the Foreign Language Bookshop in Melbourne. As you can imagine, given that Tetum is a language spoken by less than one million people, any language reference material costs the earth. In all we have spent around $250 on books and CDs; and we were given a budget by AVI for our lessons with our tutor although in the end we went over it so had to wear some of the cost ourselves.
There are three schools of thought on Tetum which mainly relates to correct spelling and usage of words. Because Tetum is an oral language there is great dispute between these schools and you often see words written quite differently. It certainly makes life even more interesting as a student of the language! One school comes from a Dutch Australian woman who lives in Dili and who completed her PhD on Tetum. Her book was written for Peace Corps, is the one used by most tutors in Dili and is considered popular spoken Dili. It is the one I just completed using with my tutor. The second school is an Australian academic based in Sydney who makes regular trips to Timor and is considered to be the authority on the language by the Timorese government (they appointed him Director of Research and Publications at the National Institute of Linguistics, Timor Leste’s official language authority). He is a brilliant linguist and knows all 16 of the local dialects in Timor but his language use is more formal and academic. The CDs we purchased along with the book come from this more formal and academic school of thought so it will be interesting to compare it to the former which we have been learning since we arrived. The third proponent is less vigorous, but was the main force behind the Lonely Planet Tetum phrasebook.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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