Saturday, June 10, 2006

What's wrong with Babel?


In the Middle Ages, European scholars decided that the Tower of Babel must have been built in the Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus region was and is home to a bewildering array of languages, many of which are either unique - 'isolates' is the term linguists use, apparently - or members of small and obscure language families.

But if the medieval Christians had enjoyed a broader knowledge of the world they would surely have nominated Melanesia as the region in which Babel was built. Even in today's 'globalised world', Melanesian nations like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu boast truly extraordinary linguistic diversity - Papua New Guinea's six million people speak a thousand languages, for instance.


East Timor is located on the western edge of Melanesia, and also boasts considerable linguistic diversity. The country covers only about eighteen thousand square kilometres, and its population does not reach a million, yet its peoples speak thirty-four distinct languages. In the far east of the country a Papuan language called Fataluku enjoys wide currency, but most of the country's languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian family. In East Timor as in Melanesia, successive waves of immigrant peoples and a rugged, isolating landscape meant that linguistic 'islands' formed in many places.

East Timor's post-independence government and the Westerners it has employed seem to have regarded the country's linguistic riches as something of a curse. On his now-archival Letters from East Timor blog, Kiwi aid worker Dave Owens discusses the search for a lingua franca that can be used in the new country's education system and civil service. Indonesian is the most 'popular' language in East Timor, but it is widely disliked as a symbol of the days of Javanese domination. Tetum is the most widely spoken indigenous language, but its vocabulary is archaic, and would need extensive modification to be suitable for the civil service and the schools.

Owens and others report that the Alkatiri government's decision to make Portugese the language of government and education has met with widespread opposition. Only about 5% of East Timorese can speak Portugese, and many associate the tongue with colonialism and with a foreign-educated elite that dominates the government. Owens appears to have favoured the use of English in school and in government, and why not? It'd certainly have made things easier for him.

I wonder, though, whether the assumption that a single language must be imposed on the East Timorese is not in itself a reflection of the domination of the country by foreigners and a foreign-educated elite. It is of course reasonable that civil servants should have a common language to communicate with one another in, but is it really necessary to make East Timorese children use a single language in schools across the country? The use of Portugese has forced the government to import teachers from other Lusophone countries like Brazil. Reports speak of a widespread feeling that knowledge of Portugese is a sort of unofficial pass to scarce public sector jobs for sons and daughters of the elite, and a way of locking people from rural areas out of these jobs. Would it not have been more practicable to offer education in local languages, rather than excluding these languages from the education system?

Besides practicality there are questions of cultural oppression to be considered here. It's true that languages are always in flux, and frequently in competition with one another, and that many die natural deaths as they cease to serve any useful purpose. There's no doubt that some of the factors that created such linguistic diversity in East Timor no longer exist, that modern communications and economic development have begun at chip away at the isolation that protected linguistic islands in the country's rugged interior. Like any feature of a culture, a language can't be kept in aspic. But there is a world of difference between the freely chosen abandonment and the forced abandonment of a language.

Experience in other countries, not least New Zealand, suggests that the removal of a language from the classroom goes a long way towards undermining it. And too often languages have been removed from the classroom by bureaucratic fiat, rather than the choice of the communities that possess them. The imposition - or should I say reimposition? - of Portugese on the East Timorese seems like more evidence of the arrogance that the technocratic Fretilin elite and their Western 'advisers' have shown toward the country outside Dili.

4 Comments:

Blogger Renegade Eye said...

A modern nation-state is defined by a unifying language.

Wouldn't world wide socialism, need a world language, world laws, currency etc?

10:12 am  
Blogger maps said...

What is a 'modern nation state', though, and why is it ipso facto a good thing? It sounds like a very abstract category to use. So is the notion of a world socialist state with the same laws and language.

There may well be a case for encouraging all East Timorese to learn the same second language, but the repression of first languages by bureaucratic fiat isn't something that socialists should support. We should be for language and cultural rights for all minorities.

5:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in favour of, and will even when I have a spare moment make the effort to learn, any language, as long as it is resolutely anti-Ross!

I am yours etc
Sanjay Wells

5:07 pm  
Blogger Mark K said...

It's true that modern nation states do typically involve the attempted imposition of a national language as part of their program of racist national solidarity, and also in the name of efficiency in commerce, et cetera. Certainly not a good thing though, and not something that is designed towards people's needs, but rather capital's.

11:32 pm  

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