knowing Tetun

In English, when you ask someone if they have another language, you often ask if they can speak it: “Can you speak English”, “do you speak a second language”, “she speaks Spanish”, etc. This seems to be a common construction in other languages, too. But in Tetun, when you’re asked if you’ve got the language, people say, hatene Tetun? — do you know Tetun?

The use of verb hatene, to know, rather than the verb koalia, to speak (which is gorgeously made by combining the words for ‘cut’ and ‘language’, incidentally) to me feels instructive of how we approach this language.

Like the tweet I saw this week that said, “I associate men with podcast making, not podcast listening” — one verb, making or speaking, positions the person with the language very actively, producing noise without necessarily hearing. The other locates language proficiency firmly in awareness; understanding.

It is a thought I have in my mind when I observe how dominant I am in English-language conversations compared to how quiet I am speaking Tetun.

In Tetun, my vocabulary is limited and my tongue is clumsy. I take a long time to think of what I want to say, I piece together my words deliberately, and I listen so intently to the person speaking to me you might think I was being quizzed on their speech. I’m careful, my grammar is good, and I speak like a child reading from a textbook, when I speak at all.

In English, my native language, I’m fluent and confident to the point of being lazy. I speak rapidly, bubble off multiple words to mean the same thing (“he’s got this incredible, evocative, lyrical way of describing things…”), and handle the syntax I’ve known instinctively since childhood with laconic and lazy ease. I dominate conversations and assume what I have to say is interesting, that people want to hear it.

In Tetun, I lack the vocabulary to craft complex sentences or articulate clever ideas. In Tetun, I know I’m boring. But I’m still valuable in the conversation — I can still know the language, without so much speaking it. I can murmur and grunt and repeat words to agree and exclaim los duni or tebes?! when something’s accurate or remarkable; I can nod along and laugh at the right times. I can know what’s going on without needing to be the centre of it all.

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