Half of Timor-Leste’s mother tongues are at risk of extinction

Half of Timor-Leste’s mother tongues are at risk of extinction

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DILI, 24 february 2024 (TATOLI) – More than 30 languages have been registered in Timor-Leste, half of which are in danger of extinction, the authorities have warned.

On the occasion of the celebration of International Mother Language Day, on february 21, under the theme: “Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning”, authorities and language experts in Timor-Leste called for paying attention to the multilingual and inclusive education policies in order to ensure the preservation of the country’s mother tongues.

Based on 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.

According to the Coordinator of the Culture Division of Timor-Leste’s National Commission for UNESCO (CNTLU), Augusto Salsinha, mother tongues are part of a country’s identity and should therefore be preserved.

“Most of the young people in Ulmera, in Liquica, speak Tokodede, Mambae and Tetum. Only eight families, whose members are over 50, speak Manetlan, which means that this language will become extinct in the near future,” Salsinha told TATOLI.

He said that in an attempt to preserve mother tongues, since 2020 the CNTLU has produced bilingual books in Tetum and the mother tongues such as Mambae, Bunaq, Bekais, Makalero, Naweti, Dadua, and Manetlan, adding that later this year the commission will launch books written in Lolein, Lacalei and Isni.

Salsinha also explained that in order to produce books in a wide variety of languages, the CNTLU team gathers information through interviews with the so-called lian nain (owners of the word), in which legends, prayers and traditional customs are told: “The information gathered is then compiled and much of it is translated into Tetum.”

“We can’t translate everything into Tetum, because there are very specific phrases, such as prayers at receptions and cultural events, that can’t be translated so that they don’t lose their spiritual force according to local beliefs,” explained Salsinha.

He said that the commission receives around US$25,000 every year from UNESCO and US$10,000 from the Secretary of State for Art and Culture (SEAC) to support its work on preserving the mother tongues.

Meanwhile, the Director of the National Institute of Linguistics, Rosa Tilman, said the celebration of International Mother Language Day is critical for Timor-Leste to raise the awareness of the communities about the importance of the preservation of their mother tongues.

She said the launch of books in those languages is particularly important for the future generation.

The Acting Director of SEAC’s National Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Claudino Cabral, said that this year SEAC had made around US$29,000 available for cultural heritage preservation activities in the Fatuluku language, in the municipality of Lautém.

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.

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

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).

UNESCO revealed that 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: Jose Belarmino de Sa

Editor: Filomeno Martins


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