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Language and National Identity


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By Jean-Pierre Brown

APMCP Year 15 Online

 It seems to be historically inherent that language becomes politicized. History and identity are completely entwined with language in the evolution of societies. One cannot be extricated from the others. This politicization of language has also been the source of conflicts across the globe and history. In Asia, nationalism has been intricately linked to dominant linguistic identity. This has given rise to confrontations that are often seeming age-old and irreversible. Even in Canada, linguistic disputes have threatened the territorial integrity of the nation. Because language is the hinging point of national identity, politicians often tout linguistic banners to rally support by spurring ethnic tensions. Examples of this can be seen in both Indian and Chinese politics where the annexation of linguistic minorities has been created to heighten political cohesion for leading nationalist political parties.

 Elsewhere, language is the arena of discourse for geographically concentrated ethnic minority groups seeking forms of autonomy or independence. The East Timorese currently have to address the complicated nature of their newly formed national identity, and the crux of their cohesion lies in their chosing an official national language. The population of East Timor is made of many small tribes speaking over 15 different indigenous dialects. The most commonly spoken language is Tetum, but it is very underdeveloped as a written language. Portuguese on the other hand was the only official language of East Timor up until the beginning of the Indonesian invasion in 1975.  Portuguese was introduced as a "higher" language to facilitate the colonization of the region since the 16th century. Today, most East Timorese speak a creole based in Tetum but imbibed with Portuguese loan-words. Bahasa Indonesian replaced Portuguese as an official language in 1976. Bahasa is itself a newly invented language, created at the request of the Indonesian people to help with the consolidation of the nation under the ascribed "Unity through Diversity" tenet of the Pancasila. Pragmatically the adoption of Bahasa would be the most easily implimentable and practical for regional communication. However, the sting of the Javanese oppression is still too close to the hearts of most East Timorese. To adopt the language of their oppressors would seem too treacherous an act in light of all the suffering they have so recently endured. Many foreign consultants have advised that the East Timorese would be wisest to take on English as a national language in order to ease international trade, foreign direct investment and aid. The time and money necessary to introduce this language to a nation that hardly speaks it outside of the capital, makes it too difficult of an undertaking. The Portuguese have however shown an interest in their former colony. Currently, Portugal is the largest foreign aid donor and has recently given $52 million dollars toward education, including the wages of 150 Portuguese teachers. The new East Timorese constitution claims both Tetum and Portugese as official languages and Bahasa and English are recognized as "working languages".

Language disputes tend to be regionally localized as the need for cultural sensitivity is reduced further away from the epicenter. Economic and social conditions often drive people to cling to a national identity. Nationalist politicians often create "protection of language" rights in order to appeal to the constituents who feel exploited or threatened by the encroachment of a dominant dialectic. Often we that a radical linguistic rehabilitation will require too much time and money and that this will actually derive from the potential prosperity of a nation in development.

Jean-Pierre Brown