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The Key to Quality Inclusive Education in Timor-Leste’s Third Decade as an Independent Nation

Updated: Feb 21

By: Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmão, AO

Goodwill Ambassador for Education of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

5 August, 2023

Thirteen years ago, I made a visit to Muapitine, a small village in the Municipality of Lautem to launch the “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education” (MTB-MLE) pilot program, a collaboration between the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO and the Ministry of Education. In the course of the visit, I sat on the floor of one of the classrooms of the Muapitine Primary School to play with the 1st grade students and to chat with them about their experiences as students who had newly embarked on their formal education journey. Whilst I was fully aware that for the majority of students in this community their first language was Fataluku, I confess that I was a little astonished when I attempted to engage the students in a conversation in Tetun – simple questions like “What’s your name?” – and they were unable to respond. I asked myself: “How can these kids be expected to learn curricular content if they don’t understand the language spoken by the teacher?” This cohort of kids at the Muapitine Primary School had the good fortune of receiving instruction in the language they spoke at home with their parents and hence would be able to learn to read and write quite easily. Henceforth, the strong foundation in their mother tongue would help them to advance to literacy and numeracy in the official and other important languages. However, in many rural areas across Timor-Leste, large numbers of pre-school and primary level students abandon their schooling or repeat grades because of the tremendous barrier to understanding and learning represented by classroom language of instruction.

Statistics from the 2010 and more recent Censuses highlight how in some municipalities, the vast majority of the population aged 5 years and above do not know how to speak, read and write in the two official languages and speak only a local language in the home.

A study conducted by the World Bank in 2009 known as the Early Grade Reading Assessment reported the finding that many children spend years in primary schools in Timor-Leste without learning to read. More than 70% of students at the end of grade 1 could not read a single word of the simple text passage they were asked to read in Tetun or Portuguese.

As Timor-Leste’s Goodwill Ambassador for Education, I found this situation very troubling. As an educator, I know well that when children fail to learn to read in the early years of their formal schooling (grades 1-2), this negatively impacts upon their learning ability across all subject areas in subsequent years of schooling.

This sad reality compelled me to conduct my own research into the experiences of other multilingual nations in the Southeast Asia region and beyond.

UNESCO has long promoted Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) throughout the world as vast amounts of research and numerous studies have proven that mother tongues play a vital role in promoting children’s learning, improve school completion rates and facilitate the creation of an effective bridge between the home and school.

The Organisation of Southeast Asian Ministers of Education (SEAMEO), via its project entitled “Mother Tongue as Bridge Language of Instruction: Policies, Strategies and Advocacy”, advocates strongly for the use of local languages in the early years of formal education. Participants from Timor-Leste who participated in SEAMEO’s Language Conference in July 2008 recommended that their own education authorities actively support mother tongue instruction to boost children’s comprehension and learning. During the conference, they heard about the experiences of nations like Mozambique, Cambodia, the Philippines, Guatemala, Nepal and Papua New Guinea in the implementation of MTB-MLE as a means of increasing access to education and contributing to the preservation of local languages as a fundamental component of the cultural identity of a nation.

The principle of teaching literacy in the first language of ordinary men and women as a means of lifting them out of poverty and ignorance has a place in Timor-Leste’s resistance history. Fretilin’s literacy campaigns conducted in 1975 recognised the role of Timor-Leste’s indigenous languages at a time when the country was readying itself to throw off its colonial shackles. In 2023, many of those same indigenous languages face the threat of extinction in the near future if the state fails to make efforts to defend and promote them, as prescribed by the Timor-Leste Constitution.

As Goodwill Ambassador for Education and Chair of the National Education Commission, in November 2009 I invited four experts from Portugal and two from Australia to participate in a “Language in Education” mission in order to study and provide recommendations on language of instruction policy at the pre-school and basic (primary) education levels. After 7 days of intensive work, including meetings with teachers, students, linguists and local and national leaders, the team presented the following key recommendations:

In the first cycle of basic education (grades 1-3), prioritise the use of local language to support the introduction of Tetun. Portuguese should be introduced first orally through songs, storytelling, theatre and dance. By the conclusion of the cycle, children should be able to read, write and communicate confidently in Tetun and commence learning to read and write in Portuguese.

The conclusions of this mission and its recommendations motivated me to work with the National Commission of Education and the Ministry of Education to establish an MTB-MLE pilot project with the aim of testing this methodology in three rural communities in the municipalities of Manatuto, Oecusse and Lautem. With a miniscule budget, we managed to work with national and international linguists and members of the community across the three locations to develop orthographies for Fataluku, Galolen and Baikeno languages, a series of simple readers and other learning materials in each of the languages, train teachers in each of the ten selected pre- and primary schools and conduct advocacy work at the local and national levels. This minimal work invited some controversy at the national level! Some individuals expressed their suspicion as to my motives for supporting the mother tongue pilot program, accusing me of intending to put an end to Portuguese as one of the official languages of Timor-Leste and as language of instruction. In reality, my aim was to improve the effectiveness of the teaching and learning of Portuguese through employment of a methodology which recognizes and values the first language of children and their identity as citizens of Timor-Leste.

This short film made by the pilot project team at the Maina 1 Preschool in Lautem municipality in 2015 demonstrates clearly how effectively the students aged 4-5 years of age were able to acquire reading and writing skills in their native Fataluku after only 6 months of instruction.

An evaluation of the mother tongue pilot program (known as “EMBLI” or “Edukasaun Multilinge Bazeia ba Lian Inan” in Tetun) undertaken by an independent expert in 2015 aimed to measure students’ reading ability and their mastery of curricular content, including mathematics and Portuguese and the effectiveness of the MTB-MLE/EMBLI methodology overall. The results affirmed the following:

  • Students’ performance in mathematics was 2.3 times greater than in regular public schools where mother tongue was not the principal language of instruction;

  • Students in the pilot schools demonstrated a slightly higher level of comprehension of Portuguese than students in the CAFE (Portuguese-only) schools, in spite of the fact that by Grade 2 they had not yet commenced formal instruction in Portuguese;

  • Academically, the MTB-MLE methodology was observed to accelerate children’s learning by between 1.5-2 years;

The following graphic highlights some other key results from the evaluation:

Figure 1 - Standard L2 refers to public schools using Tetun and Portuguese as medium of instruction and EMBLI refers to the MTB-MLE pilot schools.

Moreover, the evaluation analyzed the relative costs of educating students to become proficient readers across the three models of education (standard public schools with Tetun as the medium of instruction, the MTB-MLE model employing mother tongue as language of instruction and the Portuguese-only CAFE model):

Figure 2 – The figures in the left vertical bar refer to the cost per student in each of the programs. The overall national costs are given in the text box to the right of the graph.

Whilst this evaluation clearly demonstrated the superiority of the MTB-MLE methodology in promoting children’s learning and also the benefits to the state in terms of the relatively low costs of implementation, the report and its recommendations received scant attention from Ministry of Education officials and national leaders. A number of communities in the areas adjacent to the mother tongue pilot schools requested that the Ministry of Education expand the program to their own schools after having witnessed for themselves its benefits for children’s learning. Nevertheless, the Ministry’s response was to expand and boost investment (almost 6 million dollars annually) in the CAFE program schools which teach the national curriculum in Portuguese exclusively, a methodology proved in numerous studies to be inefficient for the fact that new curricular content is taught in a language not fully mastered by students. The annual MTB-MLE budget is approximately $US 100,000 or 2% of the annual CAFE program budget.

The 9th Constitutional Government can improve academic success at the secondary and tertiary education levels by investing in policies that help pre-school and primary school students to acquire reading skills in the languages they speak at home and henceforth transfer these skills to literacy in Portuguese and further languages of international diffusion such as English. Scientific research[1] proves that children who manage to become proficient readers by the time they complete grade three are four times more likely to complete their studies and achieve success in their professional lives.

Just as importantly, the new government has a golden opportunity to fulfil its own goals of improving the quality of education and promoting inclusion and social justice in the classroom and across the entire country. The solution is simple and inexpensive and does not require Timor-Leste to look beyond its own shores. It requires no foreign expertise. Believe in yourself and READ … to move forward![2]

[1] Collier and Thomas 2017. [2] The current ruling party, CNRT, has as its slogan “Fiar-an, la’o ba oin!” (Believe in yourself and move forward!)



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