My landmarks in learning Tetun

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Laura and I signed up for Indonesian language classes. This surprised a couple of people, who asked us, fairly, why.

We replied that we thought it would be fun; that we thought the language would be useful for us, and it’s got hundreds of thousands of speakers here in Timor-Leste; and for me, that starting something new in my last few weeks here would help me focus on staying present.

And for me, it also represented a bit of a line under my Tetun-learning: while I’m still practising Tetun as much as I can, speaking it at work and at home, my decision to commit my time and money to Indonesian classes, not Tetun classes, seems a bit of an acceptance of the language level I’m now at. I don’t think my Tetun will meaningfully improve from here on.

So, now feels like the time to reflect on two years of learning Tetun: where I’m at and how I got here.


Some background

I came to Timor-Leste as a volunteer with the Australian Volunteers program, which generously gave me 80 hours of Tetun classes: four hours every weekday morning for a month at the Dili Institute of Technology (here’s my list of where you can learn Tetun in Dili). They also allocated me $400 to continue my language-learning after the month was up, which I spent on 90-minute-long weekly chats with Alex, one of my DIT teachers.

I’m very lucky! I recognise that I started ten steps ahead of most foreigners here and I don’t take that lightly. I know that most people aren’t in the position–financially or time-wise–to spend hundreds of hours learning a language. But, you’ll likely also know from reading older posts on this blog that I pinned big hopes on learning Tetun; I equated fluency with unlocking an ethical, sensitive and humble approach to working as a foreigner in a new place; with growing within myself; with being open to embarrassment and new-ness (you can read all my reflections on learning Tetun language here).

Where my language skills are at now

A couple of years on from that first month of classes, I’m re-considering my early decisions about what fluency represents, and carving space for my fine-but-not-great Tetun to go. I can understand most of what I hear, I can speak fine, I can do my work in Tetun but it’s often easier if we do it in English–a situation I suspect is about average for the Dili-based foreigners who have been here for the same time as me.

On the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ spoken competence scale for language-learning, as outlined for Tetun by Catharina Williams-van Klinken, I’m likely somewhere between the second-highest category; advanced, and the one below it; limited working proficiency. The below paragraph, from Catharina’s excellent paper, describes the level I think I’m at:

At the beginning of advanced level, speakers can tell stories, compare, explain and discuss. If an unexpected complication arises, such as arriving late for an important meeting, they have enough language to deal with it. They can speak on topics of personal and general interest, in most informal settings and some formal ones, and can be understood without difficulty, even by people who are not accustomed to foreigners. In terms of grammar, they handle basic constructions accurately most of the time, and manage some more complex constructions as well. They are comfortable enough in the language to be able to link their sentences into paragraphs.

The highest level, superior, is still beyond my reach — I can’t quite “discuss a wide range of issues extensively, including abstract topics and hypothetical situations”; I can’t always “link my ideas throughout an extended speech” or “carry myself in most formal and informal settings” (but, to be fair, I can’t quite do this in English, either–last month I used the word “bitch” in a formal meeting, whoops).

But I’m reasonably confident and comfortable with my Tetun, and can pinpoint a few key moments when I realised it was progressing.

My key moments

The fact that each stage of language-learning takes longer to master than the previous one is horribly deflating and demoralising, and I spent many months blustering through childlike sentences, sitting stumped and silent in meetings, and feeling like I was, if anything, regressing, rather than making progress. But these key moments made me realise I was slowly, slowly getting somewhere.

The first time I gave a presentation in Tetun: as part of a volunteer communications group in Dili, Timor Comms, I helped out with a workshop in September 2017, six months after I arrived in Timor. With the help of an interpreter, who was there to rephrase my Tetun if I got it wrong, I delivered an hour-long presentation in Tetun and helped out facilitating group activities. Looking back, my Tetun was pretty shocking, but it was a key moment for me in feeling like I had a grasp of the language and could feasibly imagine myself working with it one day without the help or an interpreter or a powerpoint.

Looking back on this, I can’t believe I did this–this is something I wouldn’t be able to do now. But circumstances forced me to give it a go, I had beginner’s confidence and the support of skilled helpers, and as Catharina identifies in that paper, my spoken Tetun was reasonably strong after my lessons–but as I progressed along my language-learning path those active speaking skills regressed a fair bit, and have only recovered probably in the last twelve months.

The first time I realised how boring ceremonies could be: when I first came to Timor-Leste I attended a fair few traditional ceremonies, events and celebrations with my then-boss. I’d listen politely to hours and hours of speeches I couldn’t understand, assuming great profound words to be totally washing over me. But in late October 2017, I attended an event in Dili that had the typical ceremonies, speeches, formalities. I sat with a couple of newly arrived AVID volunteers and realised, to my sudden surprise, that I could still not really understand most of what was happening, but I could get enough to realise that these long, droning speeches I’d assumed full of insight and wisdom were actually repeated cycles of people paying their respects to the ema boot, important people; of stating their appreciation for being here; of highlighting the importance of the event. Realising they were formal process words was the first time I can remember actually understanding at-pace spoken Tetun, and it was thrilling.

At the police station: at some point in late 2017, my driver’s license was seized by the traffic police as punishment for driving my car unregistered (I’d applied for a new registration before the August expiration and had the receipt, but failed to pick up the new document within the month-or-two they’d granted). I enlisted Maria from AVI to help get it back; we made a few trips together to the Caicoli police station and I found–in a highly specific context–I could understand what she and the officers were talking about without needing interpretation. I couldn’t string the words together myself, but I knew what was going on.

The first time I could gossip in Tetun: a few months later, in December 2017, I was on a work trip with some colleagues and a foreign colleague who had been in Timor for just a few weeks. During long staff meetings on that trip I found I could understand enough to interpret brief topics and summaries for my foreign colleague, and later, I sat on my colleague’s hotel bed and bitched furiously about another colleague we were upset with. I didn’t contribute much to the conversation and the very very clear context was imperative in helping me understand most of what my limited vocabulary would have otherwise missed, but it was one of the first times I can remember participating in an extended conversation without having to interrupt for English interpretation.

The Unicef interviews: at the beginning of 2018 I wrote 15 or 20 stories for Unicef; I took an interpreter with me every time and listened closely to them during my interviews. But towards the end of that time–after weeks and weeks of listening to nearly a hundred different Timorese people speaking Tetun, and listening to the same two interpreters’ voices explaining things to me, I found myself much more able to understand things. I carried this past those the interviews and transcribing.

When I first realised filler words:  in February 2018 (according to the timestamp of my post in my Facebook group Tetun Foun, or new Tetun) I realised how Tetun-speakers say “um”, or otherwise fill their sentences. Before that, I’d been intently hanging on to every word I could, feeling frustrated with myself for not understanding and letting full sentences dissolve as I hit single words I couldn’t understand. But with the Unicef interviews and a job-switch where I was meeting new people and doing induction meetings in Tetun, I learned to appreciate filler words: bee, ee, saida, seda, sa, nasaa, narsaida, nee-nee, tok, fali, all things that come up in every Tetun conversation.

Here’s my summary of how my first year of language-learning–from March 2017 to February 2018–went. 

Things progressed slowly and steadily from then. Just as important to my language-learning, I’ve realised, is the change within myself over that time. I began to grow more comfortable with my limitations, with accepting that I didn’t know; with not furiously trying to be capital-P Perfect at everything. Softened me and opened me up to learning.

Back 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  unsure; knowing we weren’t at that level, but turns out it was a cheekily-named course for those wishing to progress to advanced level–and as well as useful vocabulary and connecting words, I learned I wasn’t quite as “hopeless as I was last year”, and that foreigners without Tetun could still be useful.

Ordering the bed and being house xefenearly six months on from those classes; another big gap, but when Felix left our house to go to Melbourne I suddenly became the housemate our land family talks to about admin and logistics: our landlady requesting me buy floor cleaner and dishwashing detergent; our landlord reminding me to lock the front door and requesting me to move my car out of the compound; organising paying rent for several months in advance instead of just waiting for Felix to tell me what I owed, and ordering and receiving delivery of the new mattress that I now sleep on. This gave me a new appreciation of how much quiet organising Felix did for me, and how my Tetun, however scratchy, can actually be useful and functional.

The first Indonesian class: and finally, six weeks out from my Timor-Leste departure, Laura and I took our first Indonesian class, which was horrifyingly and hilariously taught in Indonesian, not in English. We used our Tetun, not English, to query words and meanings and definitions, and after the second hysterical class Laura visited a Timorese colleague’s new baby and reported how nice it was to chit-chat with someone in a language that wasn’t English or “stupid Indonesian”. If nothing else, these classes have been hilariously and very very validating–a nice and unexpected end to the Tetun-learning experiment.

My Tetun in the future

I feel realistic about the fact that my Tetun will decline when I return to Australia: I’m determined to find a Tetun-speaker (who isn’t Felix) to continue practising with; I’ll stay in touch with my land family and colleagues and will keep messaging and emailing in Tetun. I’ll also likely be back in Timor-Leste either later this year or in a couple of years’ time–but I know that being away from this place will make me forget and permit me to stop trying.

And something I learned only this week, from one of my bosses–a foreigner who speaks fluent Tetun and who has lived here for nearly 20 years. He said how helpful it is for him to have a Timorese colleague in meetings–he can understand every single word spoken to him, but after the meetings he turns to the colleague and says ok, what was that person actually trying to tell me?

However good my Tetun skills get I’ll never appreciate the subtleties and nuance of this place and its languages and its people. And I have no expectations of that; no pressure. Learning Tetun will be life-long and I’ll keep it going as best I can; will come back to it; will perhaps one day revisit this post and think fondly of how confidence I am right now, like I do now with my older posts trumpeting my near-fluency and extreme comprehension. Aprende, aprende, aprende, I wrote at the end of that very first learning-Tetun post; that’s the best I can think of now, too. Learn learn learn.


2 responses to “My landmarks in learning Tetun”

  1. Interesting article! Do you happen to know any online resources for learning Tetun?


  2. […] from living overseas. One thing foreigners can do to help. Dear Sophie, 749 days ago. Homegoing. Landmarks in learning Tetun. Two different birthday cakes, two different years. A cheesy Timor soundtrack. Tips for living in […]


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