An elementary school in Manatuto, East Timor, is among just a few in the country to formally make the community’s indigenous tongue the main language of instruction in early grades. (Brendan Brady/TIME)

By Brendan Brady/Dili

With the sleeves of his button-down shirt rolled up, the man stood on an open-air stage before an audience of hundreds and read his poems with dramatic pauses, varied inflection and a sense of purpose that comes naturally to those accustomed to holding court. The man, 65-year-old Xanana Gusmão, is a former guerrilla leader and the current Prime Minister of East Timor, an island nation in Southeast Asia, which was the world’s youngest country until South Sudan gained independence last year. That he was reading his poems in Portuguese, a language understood by a small fraction of the population, spoke to the close but often convoluted relationship between language, identity and politics in newly independent states.

Modern-day East Timor was claimed by Portugal in the 16th century. In 1975, no longer a global power, Portugal withdrew. Indonesia immediately invaded, claiming precolonial ownership of the island. Gusmão joined the main armed resistance group, Fretilin. A gifted orator and writer, he would become its leading voice along with José Ramos-Horta, now the President of East Timor and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Gusmão, Ramos-Horta and other resistance leaders were educated in Portuguese and promoted it as the language of the resistance to underline the historical and cultural differences between the island nation and Indonesia as well as to avoid infighting over which of the country’s numerous indigenous languages is most emblematic of East Timorese identity.

The resistance achieved its aim in 1999, but not until Indonesia’s brutal quarter-century occupation claimed some 200,000 lives and systematically devastated the social and physical foundations of the country. In 2001 an assembly elected to draft a constitution for newly independent East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, chose Portuguese and Tetum as the official languages of the nation, to be used in parliament, schools and other public venues. Notably, the constitution and founding laws were drafted only in Portuguese. Spoken by a majority of East Timorese, Tetum had emerged as the closest thing to a national language, but the other selection, Portuguese, was controversial. Educated during the occupation, the majority of the country’s youth had a much stronger grasp of Indonesian. But as the language of East Timor’s recently ousted tormentors, it was viewed as toxic by the captial city of Dili’s politicians.

Today many of the practical consequences of the Portuguese language’s prominent status in East Timor remain troublesome. Judges speak mostly in Portuguese even though few in the courtroom — defendants and witnesses included — can understand it. Live translation often fails to prevent confusion and misunderstanding. Legislation is sometimes drafted only in Portuguese, leaving some parliamentarians unable to read a bill they are voting on.

The reality of Portuguese’s limited reach in the country is most conspicuous in schools. After independence, many teachers scrambled to learn Portuguese so they could follow the rules, though Tetum and other indigenous languages are often used de facto. “Almost all of the teachers here have a problem with the Portuguese language, [but] Portuguese is what’s mandated,” says the principal of Colegio San Miguel, a primary school in Dili. Joao Marsao, who at 58 is older than most of his fellow teachers and learned Portuguese when the European country still ruled, says many of his colleagues approach him with basic questions about how to talk with their students in Portuguese.

It is against this backdrop that a group of education-policy officials is advocating for reforms that would sanction the use of local languages in primary schools. They say international expertise is on their side. UNESCO has for years asserted that children best develop cognitive skills — and, eventually, learn to speak, read and write in multiple languages — by being taught in their early years in their household language. The group also posits that instructing children in their indigenous language promotes social equality by giving regular students — unlikely to have had private lessons in a nonhousehold language — an equal opportunity to participate in class.

“We need to create an environment in the classroom where children can express themselves [and become] thinking, contributing citizens for one of the youngest countries in the world,” says Kirsty Sword Gusmão, an Australian-born former social activist married to East Timor’s Prime Minister. The First Lady is chair of East Timor’s UNESCO commission and has spearheaded the effort to change language policy for the country’s schools. She says inveterate biases instilled by colonialism are one of the main obstacles to the program’s gaining support. Many parents believe their children are taking a step backward, she says, by receiving an education in their indigenous language, which they often see as primitive. But that perception can change when parents see improvements in how their children engage in a classroom that uses their mother tongue.

In the district capital of Manatuto, the main elementary school is among a few across the country where the community has decided, through a public consultation and vote, to have lessons in early grades taught mostly in their local language, Gololei. “It means our local language and identity will not be lost,” says Gaspar da Costa, 52, who has two sons attending the school. One of the school’s teachers, Inocencia Sequeira Miranda, says the change has spared her from the awkward pauses that used to silence her lessons. “It was difficult because Portuguese wasn’t even a language that I knew well. When I spoke, the students would just stare at me with a blank look on their faces,” she says. “Now I’m more confident, and it’s easier for the kids to understand.”

That children learn best in their first years of school in their household language has been “proved time and time again in countries worldwide,” says Robert Phillipson, a professor of linguistics of Copenhagen Business School and author of Linguistic Imperialism. He says that studies of primary schools in India and Nepal have shown that children benefit most from their education when it is conducted in the language of their community. He also points to Zambia’s education system, which he says has outperformed that of its neighbor and fellow former British colony Malawi by making more room for local languages in schools. “The evidence is that if you grant people rights to use their indigenous languages, it does no harm to the state,” Phillipson says. “It’s not a recipe for the country to be disintegrated.”

Whatever empirical and anecdotal evidence exists in support of a countrywide shift in language policy, many East Timorese remain skeptical. “The intention is very good, but in practice it will be very difficult to implement,” says Ceu Federer, who at times during the Indonesian occupation served as a courier between resistance groups. In some communities, students don’t share a common first language and, more significant, most of East Timor’s indigenous languages are limited to oral communication, with little or no script. Federer, who is fluent in Portuguese, also points out that Tetum has numerous loan words from Portuguese, which makes teaching in the European language less formidable.

There are also suspicions that deeper motives are behind the proposed language-policy changes, says Augustinho Caet, an official at the Ministry of Education who is at odds with some of his peers in the government in pushing for this change. “[Some people] think we are going to replace the official languages,” he says. “That is not what we aim to do. We aim to help them learn better Portuguese and Tetum.” The resistance Caet anticipated has materialized. A parliamentary resolution in August reiterated the country’s original language policy and, pointedly, said Portuguese had a fundamental historical, social and political role in East Timor and that any changes to the language’s official place “would condemn the country to irrelevance and, eventually, to subordination.” Even amid this opposition, Sword Gusmão and Caet are introducing a pilot mother-tongue program in a dozen more schools across the country this year.

East Timor is still grappling with its traumatic history, and framing and reframing its antioccupation resistance narrative. Language plays a central part in this story, says Max Stahl, a British video journalist whose 1991 footage of Indonesian soldiers massacring East Timorese helped bring international attention to the occupied nation’s plight. “East Timor desperately needs to consolidate its identity as a state,” he says. How this effort is waged through classroom language policies could fundamentally change the script for East Timor’s history, present and future.

[Published by TIME.com on January 4, 2012]