KNTLU: “TL should establish National Center for Linguistic Diversity to preserve endangered languages”

KNTLU: “TL should establish National Center for Linguistic Diversity to preserve endangered languages”

he Executive Secretary of the National Commission of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Timor-Leste (KNTLU), Francisco Barreto (Photo Tatoli/Filomeno Martins)

DILI, 28 june 2022 (TATOLI) – The Executive Secretary of the National Commission of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Timor-Leste (KNTLU), Francisco Barreto said Timor-Leste should establish a National Center for Linguistic Diversity to better preserve and prevent its endangered indigenous languages from going extinct.

Timor-Leste takes the 31st spot in the Linguistic Diversity Index (LDI) among 232 countries.

According to a study, Timor-Leste is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with more than 30 indigenous languages and two official languages used across the country.

Besides Portuguese and Tetum as the official languages, Timor-Leste’s Indigenous languages include Baikenu, Bekais, Galoli/Galolen, Habun, Idate, Isni, Kairui, Kemak, Lakalei, Lolein, Makuva, Mambai, Midiki, Nanaek, Naueti, Tetun Terik, Tokodede, Waima’a, Bunak, Fataluku, Makalero, Makasae, Sa’ani, Adabe, Atauran, Dadu’a, Rahesuk, Raklungu, Resuk, and Mantla.

Among these indigenous languages, Makuva is one of the mother tongues to become dormant or extinct as no one can speak it anymore in Tutuala of the Lautem Municipality. It became doomed as the latest generation of children in Tutuala no longer speak the language.

To prevent other national languages from becoming extinct, the Executive Secretary of the KNTLU, Francisco Barreto said the Government should establish a National Center for Linguistic Diversity to develop Timor-Leste’s indigenous languages.

According to the 2010 Census, a number of several existing indigenous languages are endangered, including Makuva with only 56 speakers, Atauran with 147 speakers, Adabe with 181 speakers, Nanaek with 297 speakers, and Isni with 703 speakers.

“With the National Center for Linguistic Diversity, the government can allocate money which will support implementing various programs to promote indigenous languages. For instance, conducting academic research in intercultural studies and linguistic diversity. We have enough human resources, especially those who hold university degrees in linguistics to carry out such linguistic research in the country,” Barreto told TATOLI, at his office, in Dili.

He said through academic research, Timor-Leste will identify significant threats to endangered indigenous languages in the country.

Factors causing languages loss 

Barreto pointed out that several factors contribute to languages becoming critically endangered and eventually extinct.

“One of the factors is the native speakers giving up their native tongue for the more commonly spoken language in their environment. For instance, Makuva language in Tutuala of Lautem Municipality. I think, the new generation no longer speaks this language because they are surrounded by people who speak Fataluku,” Barreto said.

He said language shift is another factor that may also contribute to language loss: “Many new marriages prefer to live in Dili. So, children will have no chance to learn their parents’ mother tongue as their parents often communicate in Tetum than their indigenous languages. It will lead to a decrease in the number of mother-tongue speakers as the older generation disappears.”

In addition, Barreto emphasized that globalization may also contribute to reducing the number of native speakers: “You know, the absorption of the foreign languages like Portuguese, English and Indonesian are now taking place in the country. Meanwhile, those who are living and working abroad will find it hard to teach their mother tongues to their children.”

“Therefore, we need to promote writing in our mother tongues to preserve our indigenous languages. If we don’t do it now, one day, many Timorese will lose one language in favor of the more dominant and widely spoken lingua franca,” he stressed.

Barreto called on local communities to keep communicating in their mother tongues to promote and preserve their languages: “We don’t want other indigenous languages to go extinct like Makuva in Tutuala.”

Since 2019, KNTLU has been working on promoting and developing two of the most spoken mother tongues in the country, including Mabae and Bunak, and other seven small indigenous languages, namely Bekais in Balibo, Dadua in Laklo, Lolein in Aileu, Laklein in Manufahi, Mantla in Liquiça, Naueti in Uatocarbau, and Makalero in Iliomar.

Books produced from KNTLU(Photo Tatoli/Filomeno Martins)

“We have produced a number of books in these mother tongues. In 2019, KNTLU produced three books titled “Istória Tradisionál no Lia-Dadolin iha Lian Mambae Suku Goulolo”, “Istoria Tradisionál no Lia-Dadolin iha Lian Bekais Suku Leohitu”, and “Istória Tradisionál no Lia-Dadolin iha Lian Bunak Suku Tapó.”

Barreto said KNTLU would keep cooperating with the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Culture (MoHESC), the Secretary of State for Art and Culture (SoSAC), and partners to promote and preserve Timor-Leste indigenous languages.

According to a study conducted by Catharina Williams-van Klinken and Rob Williams in 2015, there are about 18 native Austronesian languages on the mainland of Timor-Leste, as well as 5 languages classified as Papuan, and six indigenous languages are spoken on Atauro island.

Indigenous languages by the total number of native speakers recorded in the 2010 Census: Major Austronesian languages in the mainland included: Baikenu (62,201 speakers), Bekais (3,887 speakers), Galoli / Galolen (13,066 speakers), Habun (2,741 speakers), Idate (13,512 speakers), Isni (703 speakers), Kairui (5,993 speakers), Kemak (61,969 speakers), Lakalei (3,250 speakers), Lolein (1,130 speakers), Makuva (56 speakers), Mambai (131,361 speakers), Midiki (9,586 speakers), Nanaek (297 speakers), Naueti (15,045 speakers), Tetun Terik (63,519 speakers), Tokodede (39,483 speakers), and Waima’a (18,467 speakers). Meanwhile, the major Papuan languages in the country included: Bunak (55,837 speakers), Fataluku (37,779 speakers), Makalero (7,802 speakers), Makasae (101,854 speakers), and Sa’ani (4,763 speakers). There are six mother tongues on the Island of Autauro, including Adabe (181 speakers), Atauran (147 speakers), Dadu’a (3,146 speakers), Rahesuk (1,015 speakers), Raklungu (2,220 speakers), and Resuk (1,691 speakers).

According to UNESCO, 43% of the 6.000 languages spoken worldwide are currently at risk of extinction.

The United Nations General Assembly (Resolution A/RES/74/135) proclaimed the period between 2022 and 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL 2022-2032), to draw global attention to the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilize stakeholders and resources for their preservation, revitalization, and promotion.


Journalist: Filomeno Martins 

Editor: Nelia Borges 


Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected !!