Language learning: An update

Lately, it feels like my Tetun is progressing at a rate of one foot forward — and 30cm back.

I enjoy reflecting regularly on my experience of learning a second language, because I’ve neither seen nor asked someone else about it before: in my eyes, clever friends have just magically gone from monolingual Australians to chattering away in packet-fresh perfect French or Spanish or Japanese.

I’m curious about the spaces in between — the myriad tiny steps required to take someone from speaking only English to thinking and talking fluently in another language. While I’d love to one day speak fluent Tetun, the small, uncomfortable, truthful part of my brain knows that at my current rate, I’m unlikely to ever get there. So, while this reflection may not quite end in language fluency, I hope it’ll be useful to someone curious about the first few steps.

In my last reflection, I joked about the discrepancies between some conversations I have and others. Days before that coffee date, I’d returned from a trip to Jaco Island with a group of friends who arrived in Dili around the same time as me — including a new friend, who can speak fluent Tetun.

My other friends and I all command a similar level of language ability: we can pull up at the pousada and ask for a room; we can confirm dinner plans and request red wine glasses; and on our last trip we even managed to barter fish prices and have our car tyres filled up. But none of that is accomplished without a lot of gesturing and asking for sentences repeated; conversation centres around a few key nouns and verbs exchanged; and the fish purchase nearly turned into a surprise fishing excursion, when my friend who learns Tetun from a Portuguese-speaking teacher accidentally used the loanword word pescar, to fish, instead of the Tetun word ikan, which is the noun “fish”.

“Better to just buy it, I think,” said the fisherman (in Tetun, pescar-dor). Huh?

Fortunately, our new friend with fluent Tetun stepped in to clarify.

Helpful, and embarrassing — because she’s been here for less time than me (yes, thank you for asking; it is a competition).

My friend is European and has been speaking multiple languages since she could talk, so it’s largely an unhelpful comparison to make with us monolingual Australians (and I do have a Timorese friend who learnt Tetun from birth who jokes, “It took me a year to start speaking Tetun, so you have at least a year to learn it,”) — but it’s a sharply helpful nudge to get into gear. Triumphantly requesting glasses is only going to be cute and praise-worthy for so long, and if I really want to be useful at work; really want to try and fit in here; really want to make things as easy (or as not-un-helpful) as I can for my Timorese neighbours and friends, I need to knuckle down. Now.

A high point a couple of weeks ago was successfully presenting a near-three-hour-long workshop in Tetun to the Timor Comms communications group I’m a member of. I used a translator, but felt gratified by our system: I’d speak in Tetun, then repeat in English, and he’d step in to fill in any discrepancies. Usually, what I’d said in Tetun covered what I meant in English just fine.

A low point: I used the same translator (now a friend) on a recent trip to Maliana, where I helped conduct interviews.

“Hi, I’m Sophie, thank you for your time,” I’d start each interview, in Tetun. “I’m here to ask some questions and write a story, and I don’t really know Tetun so I’ve got my friend here to help translate.”

“Hi,” he’d then say. “I’m Sophie. Thank you for your time…”

Having the little Tetun I did know translated was demoralising.

But helpful.

Because I hear my own voice all the time, I forget I have an accent. I think my voice is neutral. And I know, generally, how most Tetun words are meant to sound, so I say what I think is right in my head and then get surprised when someone gets confused. I forget what exists in my head doesn’t quite match when mashed through the snarl of my Australian accent.

Another high point: I’ve mentioned before that my listening comprehension is nascent, and I rely heavily on the phrase “hatete fali“, say again, when speaking to Timorese people. In my last few conversations with colleagues in my office, I’ve understood immediately what they were saying, and have been able to reply (slowly) without seeking clarification. (However, this is always within the context of our office work, and I’m learning that speaking in a context you understand is like bowling with the lane guards up).

Another low point: forgetting to review the new Tetun words I learn in each of my weekly lessons with Alex has me asking the exact same questions every time and wasting precious minutes asking again the words for noisey, fill, and to play music. I’m happy today that he pushed our class back to tomorrow, which (theoretically) gives me time to revise last week’s conversation.

In my mental slump of the last couple of months, I’ve feel incapable of doing much more than just scraping by, doing the bare minimum. I remarked recently to a friend that I’m failing to do a lot of things I’d love to be doing: waking up early, exercising regularly, reading and writing fiction, practising Tetun and advancing in my textbook by myself. While I don’t want to use language-learning as an excuse to beat myself up, I do want to use it as an opportunity to reflect on my routine and make some small, easy changes.

A small plan. Today is Thursday, October 19. I’ve been in Timor for seven months and two weeks. In two months’ time, I’ll be on a plane back to Australia for Christmas. Between now and then, I’ll practise Tetun every day, without fail – whether it’s for two minutes or an hour, or somewhere in between. And when I return to Dili after Christmas, I’ll gift myself another week of daily classes at DIT, then commit to working 80 per cent of my time in the office in Tetun.

By the end of my first year in Timor, I won’t be fluent in Tetun. And that’s fine. But I’ll at least be trying.

3 responses to “Language learning: An update”

  1. […] is a series of reminders that everything I assumed was normal isn’t necessarily. From forgetting I have an accent because I’ve grown up around Australians, to panicking unnecessarily over a lack of plans for […]


  2. […] who wave at me as I walk down the street, and whose language I can chit-chat with them in — my Tetun’s not good by any stretch of the imagination, but in West Timor late last year I realised just how liberating […]


  3. […] Ups and downs and a workshop in Tetun […]


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