Back to Tetun school

I started back at Tetun school this morning, nearly a year-and-a-half to the day since my first first day, with my same old friend Laura beside me and my same old failure to get on the number three microlet in time in the morning and my same old sweaty walk down Ai-mutin’s dusty streets and our same old eyeing off time til the coffee break and earnest mestre Alex’s same old patience with our slow, stilted Tetun and the same old silence-met iha pergunta? and it felt in some small way like coming home.

Laura and I had both seen an advanced-level Tetun course advertised at the Dili Institute of Technology, DIT, where we did our initial month of classes as AVID volunteers, and decided to sign up to try and push our lacklustre language skills along a little. I’m writing this post because I want to document my language-learning on this blog, and because one of the many questions I had about moving to a new place when I came to Timor-Leste was about the gap between foreigners who knew a handful of words and phrases, and the ones who were perfectly fluent. How did people seem to go from broken sentences to packet-perfect Tetun like they were born with it?

Before I aswer that, and if you’re interested, here’s what I’ve documented of my experience learning Tetun language so far:

In that last post, I answered with confidence my own question of foreigner fluency.

I wrote:

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.

I wrote, by way of explanation, that I was speaking slow but steady Tetun and understanding the majority of words but perhaps not quite yet full concepts that were said to me.

Six months on from that post, I think my assessment of my own abilities a little optimistic — but as Laura said this morning as we settled into the exact same classroom as the one where we did most of our lessons last year, with the exact same teacher, scheduled breaks, polite coffee break chit-chat, hopeless last half-hour where the words wash over and we don’t understand at all — it’s nice to not feel quite as hopeless here as we did last year.

Two weeks ago, I went to a training session my work delivered on child protection. It was held at the nuns’ place in Kuluhun, which is where I stayed when I first arrived in Timor-Leste, before I had a house of my own. The gentle nuns were kind and welcoming to us those first few weeks, and as we left they said we must return one day to practise our Tetun with them.

In that first learning Tetun post, I wrote of them:

It’s Saturday morning and I’m out in the nuns’ courtyard, drinking a cup of coffee (hau hemu kafe) with my laptop open in front of me. I’ve organised to move out this weekend so three of the nuns just stopped by to receive my payment for the room – as we transacted we talked about my family, my work, and Tetun classes, and they told me earnestly to please come back anytime and we’d speak to each other only in Tetun. I returned the enthusiasm of their farewell wishes – the nuns are beautiful; warm and sweet and welcoming, and in barely a week I’ve come to feel very comfortable, supported and at home in the little convent guesthouse – but I did screw up my face in concern when they mentioned our future conversation, because I can more quickly imagine my atheist self joining their ranks than I can me conversing fluently in Tetun.

I wrote that classes had been hard, in a good way, but still tough. I said I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had to learn something completely from scratch, and said that it was perhaps the best possible thing I could be doing.

In those early few days I was really troubled by my presence here in Timor-Leste, which I didn’t write about at the time because the commentary I’d want to give ran foul of AVID’s strict communication guidelines. Obliquely, I wrote that being rubbish at Tetun was an excellent channel for humility and patience, two things required in a new place, and repeated my desire to learn some Tetun language, Timorese culture in order to feel less cumbersome, less useless. Now, I’d add that I was confused and troubled by why our government had parachuted us into a country whose language and customs we didn’t understand, to work with people who had never experienced foreigner ways of working before, with a near-one-year deadline to make a difference because you’d better do something, even if you they say no pressure, because there’s a hundred thousand dollars of government money behind you and if you believe in foreign aid as you likely do it’s hanging over your head like a swinging anvil the fact that it’s that measly aid budget funding your luxe welcome dinner buffet at the beachfront Golden Sun restaurant thank goodness you’re going to do something good, right? But no pressure.

In that first post, I wrote:

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of days about my role as a malae in Timor, and about the broader implications of my presence here. Turning over what good development means to me; what self-determination and capacity-development could mean in practise (separated from neat buzzwords); what value I add or support; how I can do my work most effectively and sensitively; and symbolically, what my presence in Timor represents. I’ve gone down a couple of existential rabbitholes that I’ll likely stew over in my journal and transfer the important points of to here later, but to begin, all roads seem to point to hurling myself into the deep water of Tetun class as a solid starting point. The end of my first week of class is a good point to quietly congratulate myself for getting through, and then re-committing and consolidating my intention to learn, learn, learn.

I’ll likely write more about the frustration I feel with aspects of the AVID program– which I actually think for the most part is excellent– and of foreigners working in development more generally, but for now, I’ll leave it at the memory the other week of returning to the nuns’ place in Kuluhun, the clumsy, determined, stilted Tetun chat, the willingness to be embarrassed, of things feeling hard but in a good way.

PS — want more Tetun?Here are my favourite Tetun words.

5 responses to “Back to Tetun school”

  1. […] few weeks ago, at Tetun class, our group started talking about the Timor-Leste government’s multi-million-dollar […]


  2. […] to nail some basic Tetun phrases (here’s a list of my favourite Tetun words, and a summary of how I’m going with language-learning). Everyone speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesian, too, so that will take you […]


  3. […] for the very most part, I think we’re awkward outsiders who don’t really speak the language and don’t really know the culture, and to live in Timor-Leste without screwing majorly up […]


  4. […] to Tetun school: in September 2018, Laura and I went back for a week of Tetun classes at DIT. They were offering a course they described as ‘advanced’–we were both  […]


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