Knowing a little Tetun language has been the single most helpful thing for me in living happily and easily here in Dili. And, of course, it’s respectful, appropriate and humbling to try and learn the language, even if you know you can navigate your daily life with little more than a self-conscious bondia or obrigada.
But where do you learn? Here are three key ways — all tried and tested.
Go to Tetun school
I was very fortunate to receive four weeks of lessons when I first arrived here at DIT, the Dili Institute of Technology, and I’d unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone else — both the school itself, and the immediate, immersive daily learning routine. Within a fortnight my classmates and I were stringing together sentences and by the end of the month I felt like I could talk and be understood (comprehension was another thing entirely, but Tetun is an incredibly gratifying language for its simplicity: like a kid wobbling on training wheels, you can get moving while you’re still learning).
I know of three great schools in Dili:
- DIT, which regularly runs small-group courses for beginners and intermediate-level students (sign up for a week or more of daily, four-hour-long classes on weekday mornings, and contact them here);
- LELI, the slick new language school, attended by embassy staff, where you can study one-on-one in flexible hours or register for a course (learn more here); and
- Timor Aid, the oldest (and cheapest!) Tetun school in Dili (sign up for one-on-one or small-group classes in flexible hours here).
Each has pros and cons, and trying each may actually suit you best. I understand DIT’s timetable is too structured for some; and the flexibility of LELI’s or Timor Aid’s hours may suit better. LELI uses tests and workbooks for you to carefully track your progress, but for those looking for something more casual and conversational may decide no. And while an hour of one-on-one time with a tutor at Timor Aid will cost you just $10, you may choose to spend a little more to hasten your learning with a more structured class.
Get a private Tetun tutor
After completing my month of classes at DIT, I was allocated a little money for language top-up classes (I came to Timor-Leste as an Australian volunteer in the AVID program, which is why I didn’t have to pay for my language classes). I used all of it over the course of about nine months of weekly private lessons. My old teacher from DIT, Alex, would come to my house on a Wednesday afternoon, and we’d sit on the porch and chit-chat in Tetun for an hour or an hour and a half, depending on my energy levels.
This cost me $15 for an hour or $20 for 90 minutes, and as I’ve said above, Timor Aid tutors cost $10 per hour. I enjoyed learning privately because I didn’t feel the same pressure I had in my small-group classes and could learn at my own pace; I didn’t have to waste time on boring vocabulary I wouldn’t need; and I used the hour to not just learn the language, but to demystify things that my tiny foreign brain couldn’t get — Alex, when the guy put air in my car’s tyres, should I sit in the car or stand outside? Alex, is it rude or just normal when people call me ‘big’? Alex, I heard this idiom, what does it mean…?
One gigantic downfall of my largely self-guided private classes was that I wasn’t very disciplined and I hated being wrong, so I would never study after class and would rarely push Alex to teach me new words (with the exception of idioms). Be mindful of this fault in yourself if you’re considering your own private Tetun classes, and give me an email if you’d like Alex’s number.
Practise the language everywhere
My boss, a foreigner who speaks fluent Tetun, told me he learned (and continues to learn) his Tetun from 1) chatting with taxi drivers; 2) reading newspapers; and 3) trying to rearrange words and phrases when speaking with people he knows.
If you’re short on money or time, want to continue your own learning outside the classroom, or haven’t got enough time in Timor-Leste, these are all incredibly easy ways to start and continue learning Tetun. Armed with one phrase — “how many children do you have?” — my boss would jump in a taxi and ask the driver. He’d carefully remember their reply, then, once conversation was exhausted, jump in another taxi, armed with perhaps a follow-up for the next driver — “ah, how many girls and how many boys?”
If you’ve got enough coins, hours and fortitude for yellow taxis, this is a great strategy. If not, drop 50c on a copy of the Independente or Timor Post from one of those guys by the harbour and commit to reading just one article every day, noting down new-to-you-words (and using the excellent, $5 WordFinder mini-dictionary from DIT to decode).
And if you’re lacking even the money for that, take my boss’s final tip, and rearrange words in the sentences you already know to be correct, to see if they still make sense and your new words are permissible. For example — if you know ai oan, “tree child”, means seedling, would “fatuk oan”, or rock child, work to mean pebble? (Probably not. But how else would you have found that out?)
You’ll notice all of these suggestions are very geared towards speaking the language — unfortunately for us English-speakers, Tetun is an oral language with a yet-unsettled correct written form and the majority of your language-learning will happen through speaking and listening, not through reading and writing. It’s intimidating, exhilarating, and fun — and I hope you give it a go.