Becoming a Nation of Readers in Timor-Leste

Type Report
Title Becoming a Nation of Readers in Timor-Leste
URL Conf 2011/chp_49.pdf
Multilingual Timor-Leste is a new nation and a developing country. After gaining independence in
2002, the country still faces major challenges related to economic development, unemployment and
poverty. Literacy rates are low: it is estimated that only about half of the adult population is able to read
and write. The United Nations Development Program reported adult literacy rates of 56.3% for males
and 43.9% for females, mainly as a result of lack of primary education (UNDP 2006). According to the
2004 National Population Census, in seven out of thirteen districts, above 30% of the inhabitants
between age 15 and 34 cannot read and write and in four other districts 20%. Curtain (2006), in a
national youth survey for UNICEF Timor-Leste, estimated one third of the young people to be
functionally illiterate. Timor-Leste therefore provides extraordinary challenges and possibilities for
literacy research in a developmental context, ultimately aiming at the improvement of adult literacy
rates, the emancipation of its citizens and the country’s development.
Research on literacy development in Timor-Leste has to take account of the country’s
multilingual composition and language policy. Timor-Leste has sixteen languages and a large number
of dialects (Hull 2004). From 1550-1975, when Timor-Leste was colonized by Portugal, Portuguese
was the official language. Immediately after its self-declared independence in 1975, Timor-Leste was
occupied by Indonesia. Indonesian became the official language during the 24-year-long occupation
until 1999. After independence in 2002, Timor-Leste opted for Portuguese and Tetun as the country’s
official languages, and for another fifteen national languages to be valued and developed by the state.
Research on literacy development in Timor-Leste also needs to consider the various institutional actors
involved. First the Government and the Ministry of Education have, since independence, been
confronted with adult literacy challenges regarding languages, materials, methodologies and
implementation. Soon after independence, the Government started to reduce illiteracy and enhance
educational enrolment. In 2005-2006 the Ministry of Education and the UNDP (Boon 2007) in
cooperation with local stakeholders and literacy teachers from various districts developed and piloted
literacy materials in Tetun and Portuguese. These materials were based on topics considered relevant
for development (prevention of diseases, reproductive health, agriculture, citizenship, human rights,
hygiene, environment) and their methodology combined a social-functional approach with a phonicsbased
one in order to introduce the alphabetic principle (Byrne 1998). Besides this, 260 adult-literacy
teachers were trained in a UNDP-project in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF (Boon 2007), and in 2007-2008 literacy programmes in Tetun and Portuguese were implemented
nation-wide. In 2006-2007 the government also introduced a nation-wide Cuban adult-literacy
programme, initially in Brazilian-Portuguese and then, soon after, in Tetun. The Instituto Nacional de
Linguística (INL) in Dili, with Leiden University, recently started the development of a literacy
programme in Fataluku. Furthermore, a number of local and international organisations and NGOs,
such as Oxfam Hong Kong, World Vision, Timor Aid, Fundação Cristal, Fundação Xanana Gusmão,
GFFTL, Fundação Comunidade ba Futuru and Fundasaun Buka Matenek, are involved in combining
adult literacy with social and economic development.

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