The Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education trial will see schools in three district teach children from pre-school age to grade three in a local language as well as in the official languages of Portuguese and Tetum.
It's being introduced to try to improve the performance of Timorese children at school where they often repeat grades and take many years to gain basic literacy skills.
But it's been controversial.
A seminar on the issue last week in Dili descended into shouting as angry opponent loudly voiced their concerns.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Kirsty Sword Gusmao, Head of East Timor's National Education Commission
GUSMAO: The seminar was organised by the network for the promotion of multi-lingual education, which is working with some 20 national and international organisations aiming to promote awareness about the issue of multi-lingual education, the benefits that it brings to learning. There had been quite a bit of debate in the weeks proceeding the seminar on the issue in the national media with the women's network and the (inaudible)
coming out with a statement to say that they condemned the policy, condemned the whole notion of mother tongue education, and claiming that it would lead to national disintegration and national disunity. So the idea of the seminar was to actually educate people about how mother tongue, those multi-lingual education is an important means of helping children to learn better the official languages, giving them first a solid base in their first language, their mother tongue, which in the case of the majority of kids in Timor is neither Tetum or Portuguese.
COCHRANE: One of the points that opponents to the scheme make is that in these districts there's not just one local minority language, there are often several, and so that choosing one of these local languages and not one of the others might discriminate against children who don't speak that language. What do you think about that point?
GUSMAO: We have actually very carefully selected the pilot schools in consultation with the district education authorities. For example one of the schools is in an area which based on data has about 100 per cent Fataluku-speaking population. So I think the chances of discriminating against children who may speak one of the other minority languages, such as Makalero and Makchai are very small. The way that we can address that situation in other cases is by producing .. that are bilingual, both mother tongue and Tetum, so that in cases where children do perhaps speak more Tetum at home than their mother tongue, or there may be a mixed marriage situation where there's more than one mother tongue spoken, they won't be discriminated against, their learning will be supported by instruction and also materials in both Tetum and mother tongue.
COCHRANE: And so how will it actually work in a classroom? I mean, have books and teacher's aids been prepared and how will teachers go about teaching in different languages?
GUSMAO: Well this is something that's been lacking in our teacher training and professional development of teachers to date, is actually instructing them in the whole concept of additive, multilingualism, have to start with the language that the children learn best, and to transition them in other lesser known languages, such as Tetum and Portuguese. We do have quite a few learning materials that have already been produced in each of the districts where the pilot will be conducted. There are councils for the mother tongue, which are groups of individuals in the community that have an interest in promoting the written development of their languages. So they are producing materials that can be used in schools. Some of the languages, some of the larger languages such as Fataluku do have dictionaries and there's quite a body of written material already in existence. That can't be said for some of the smaller languages, but for that very reason, we're starting the languages where there is already both strong written literature available, and also a huge interest in the community in promoting development of their languages through writing and through learning.
COCHRANE: And so when does this all begin? When does school go back, and how long do you think it might be before we start to see some results from this pilot project?
GUSMAO: Yeah look kids have gone back already, in fact ironically while all of this debacle is happening we had a team from UNESCO and the national commission from the Alola Foundation, visiting the actual pilot school sites and getting feedback and a basic assessment in schools. And parents were both extremely enthusiastic and welcoming of this initiative, and asked us to please get on with it and start doing it as quickly as possible. So obviously, this whole issue now of various civil society groups being opposed to it has served as a bit of a distraction from the main games, which is a shame. But we hope very much to be able to get cracking and start doing the teacher training in the schools and working with the community to develop sufficient learning materials that can actually support this program very soon, probably by the end of the month.
COCHRANE: And is this something that is going to take years, before real tangible results are seen?
GUSMAO: Look given the current statistics in terms of kids' literacy, kids are taking up to at the present time up to four years to learn to read and write under the current system, my feeling is that even within one year of this program being run, we'll be able to see some very positive developments in terms of both parents' engagement in their kids' learning, breaking down the divide between the school culture and the home culture, and improvements in the methodology used by teachers, because they have terrible difficulty trying to teach in a child-friendly, child-centred way that engages kids when they are essentially using a foreign language. It's really hard to expect kids to actually develop critical thinking skills, creativity when they can't express themselves in the language of the school.