Imagine if on your first day of school you literally couldn't understand a word the teacher was saying. You haven't yet learned how to read or write in your own first language, and suddenly you are expected to learn everything in a language your parents do not even speak! Sadly, this has been the reality for many children in East Timor for decades, but the Timor Leste Mother Tongue Project is trying to change that forever.
There are well over 20 languages spoken across Timor Leste, but public school is taught only in two: Tetum and Portuguese. This situation is a relic of colonialism and is threatening the existence of native tongues as more adults are adopting European languages; however, according to a 2010 census, there are still many parts of Timor Leste where less than half of the population speaks either Tetum or Portuguese. Children from these households practically become foreign language students in their own home country. These students understandably struggle in the classroom and often do not master reading and writing until their fourth year of formal schooling.
The Timor Leste Mother Tongue Project provides young children instruction in basic literacy and writing skills in their first language so they will be on equal footing when they start attending public schools. Empirical research has demonstrated that early education delivered in a child's mother tongue can have a long term impact and is associated with lower drop-out rates. These programs are especially beneficial to girls who are often sheltered at home and have little exposure to other languages.
In 2013, former first lady of Timor Leste and current Goodwill Ambassador for Education Kirsty Sword Gusmao launched a pilot program of 12 mother tongue-based multilingual education schools across the nation. The program has been so successful in improving students' educational outcomes that the Ministry of Education passed laws in 2014 decreeing that all students should receive instruction in their home language for the first two years of school. This is no light undertaking, which is why the The Rotary Club of Melbourne continues to support the Timor Leste Mother Tongue Project by providing funding and resources to train classroom instructors. Witnessing the perseverance of students and teachers has led us to share Gusmao's dream that, "Timor-Leste can be a shining example and a beacon of hope to other nations coming out of conflict around the world."