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SIL consultant contributes to promising multilingual education project in Timor-Leste

A member of the pilot project’s organizing team presents information for teachers and others with an interest in the project. A member of the pilot project’s organizing team presents information for teachers and others with an interest in the project.

(December 2012) The Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO has initiated a pilot project for multilingual education in the early grades. An SIL literacy and education consultant recently traveled to Timor-Leste at the invitation of the program’s leadership to consult on planning and materials development.

Although geographically small, the Southeast Asian island nation of Timor-Leste (Democratic Republic of East Timor) is linguistically diverse—the Ethnologue lists nineteen living languages for the country. In recent history, both Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia have been used as the language of instruction in the country’s schools. Since becoming an independent nation in 2002, Timor-Leste has adopted two official languages, Portuguese and Tetum. However, neither is widely spoken outside of Dili, the nation’s capital. For this reason the National Committee proposed that a mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE) model could be effective for Timor-Leste’s students. Children in the pilot program will first learn to read and write in the language they understand. As they build on this solid learning foundation, they will also begin to study Tetum and Portuguese, which can then be used as the language of instruction in the later years of school.

In January, classes for the pilot program will begin in schools serving students from three language communities: Baikeno, Galoli and Fataluku. In preparation, the organizing committee recently arranged a series of work sessions to prepare materials and teaching plans. A stakeholders’ meeting was also held; organizers reported on the project’s progress, shared implementation plans and presented an overview of important multilingual education concepts. The meeting was attended by representatives of several NGOs, as well as educators and representatives from the Ministry of Education.

SIL literacy and education consultant Timothy Matzke worked with the program’s District Coordinators and the UNESCO team as they created a collection of story books based on weekly themes designated by the Ministry of Education. Educators from the three language communities collaborated on plot lines for the literacy materials, but were careful to compose text that would flow naturally in each language—an important concern in materials development. Matzke also assisted with schedule plans and teacher guides for the school year, taking into account the Ministry of Education’s goals and objectives for the nation’s schools. The primers and plans will be used in December teacher training sessions.

SIL is convinced of the value of multilingual education. Multiple studies worldwide demonstrate that learning is most effective when instruction is received in the language the learner knows best. MLE creates a two-way bridge over the cultural and linguistic barriers that can hinder minority language speakers from participation and successful learning within the official school system. SIL’s consultants assist community educators and national program designers in building their capacity to create effective MLE programs.

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