One of my most pressing language questions when I first arrived in Timor-Leste was trying to figure out the gap between fluency and nothing.
I could see how you could collect some broken vocabulary, construct simple sentences, and generally make do with Tetun, and I listened with envy to foreigners speaking Tetun like it’s their mother tongue, but I couldn’t figure out the gap in between.
How do you go from forgetting the three words that make up “I’m from Australia”, hau husi Australia, to being so fluent in the language that people need to double-check you didn’t really grow up in Timor-Leste?
One year on from the month of daily Tetun classes that commenced my first year here, I understand. I’m here. This is what it’s like.
I understand nearly every word spoken to me
But I don’t always understand what someone’s saying.
If that sounds contradictory, consider that Tetun is a highly contextual language, and words often take their meaning from the sentences in which they’re used. While my vocabulary is now enough that I can recognise most commonly-used words, I often get confused when I’m not expecting a word or if I misunderstand a single word or two that ties a whole phrase together.
(A quick example: the other day, Felix asked me in Tetun if I’d locked the door. “Xave odomatan?” he said, literally, “door lock?”. But the word for lock is also the same as the word for key, and because I was hearing key the sentence meant nothing to me).
I can speak Tetun, but not at pace
I speak Tetun like a five-year-old speaks English: slowly, with a tiny vocabulary, and with frequent, random pauses. (I suspect I likely have a dumb baby accent, too.)
For most of last year, I found speaking Tetun easier than listening to it: our classes focused heavily on speaking practise, and full-speed Tetun sounded incomprehensible to my tiny mind panting to keep up with the few recognisable sounds.
But since conducting, through an interpreter, a series of long Tetun interviews, and learning to ease off with my hyper-focused attempts to pick up every single word in eavesdropping on conversation, I’ve actually found Tetun easier to listen to in the last few months than it is for me to speak.
I can chit-chat easily and say certain things without having to think about them: directions to my house, ordering food, saying numbers and asking for prices. But I can’t express myself well or share complicated ideas in Tetun.
I’m learning to pay attention to context, not words
When I was first trying to understand spoken Tetun, I hung on tightly to every single word spoken, and tried in split fractions of sections to immediately translate a word to English in my mind, digest its meaning and process the rest of the sentence without dropping pace. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work, and I was frequently lost or asking people to repeat themselves over and over again.
Now, I try to let sentenced wash over me like waves, without trying to clutch for handfuls of water, and I try to watch the context I’m in. You can glean a lot of meaning from someone’s tone, expression and gestures, and it helps a lot when I can still only catch words that I know I’ve heard before but can’t immediately understand in the moment.
I’m trying to speak like a Timorese person
When I first started speaking Tetun, I articulated my thoughts in my head in English, and then tried to pull together those same words in Tetun. Now, I realise I’m back-to-front.
Speaking Tetun, I need to think of how to articulate my thought using Tetun’s common words and approaches, rather than my own. From simple things like changing the way I ask someone if they want a drink (where I used to say “would you like something to drink”, I now know Tetun-speakers assume the person does want a drink, and just ask “hemu saida” or “atu hemu saida“); to dropping pronouns after hearing Timorese people avoid them; to picking up slang you forget is even slang in your own language (thanks, Felix, for “rai manas ida bee”, or “how hot is it today?!” to supplement the “LAND IS HOT” I was announcing before); to repeating without embarrassment the things people tell me (after a few too many moments where I would say “I’m going home” and someone would reply “going home” and I’d flush thinking I’d spoken incorrectly, when it’s actually a natural fact of conversation here to repeat to reinforce); and trying to say “um” and “ah” in Tetun instead of English.
I’m also finding this paper very helpful: I’m firmly stuck on the language-learning plateau mentioned in it, and I have found myself reluctant to force myself off it, because the returns of language-learning diminish the higher up you get.
I’m not taking lessons anymore
With my new job I no longer have the time to take the Tetun classes with Alex I had last year, which I’m disappointed about — but I know deep-down that 90 minutes of gossiping on my verandah once a week won’t be the thing that breaks me out of my language-learning rut.
I’m committed to improving my Tetun but want to find my feet at work first before I tackle formal language-learning again. In the meantime, I’m forcing myself to speak Tetun more with Felix at home (I’m shy to speak it with him normally because his is so good, better than even other native speakers’, and he’s terrible at telling me I’m wrong without explaining why, which lets my self-criticism run loose). I’m practising with my colleagues at work and have sat in on several Tetun-only meetings over the last few weeks. I have a friend who writes beautiful Tetun-language opinion pieces on her blog and I’m making a goal to translate them to English to practise my reading.
I’d love to hear from other people who have learnt languages as a monolingual adult like me. What helped, what was hard — and what caused you to break through?