Language maintenance, language shift
: Portuguese and Tetum in Darwin, Northern Territory, 1973 to 1993

  • Anne Therese Wait

    Student thesis: Coursework Masters - CDU


    Language maintenance/language shift in immigrant languages is an area of continuing interest for sociolinguists who are involved in researching this phenomonon in Australia. Whilst there is a sizeable body of data available regarding the languages of some of the major and longer established groups such as Greek, German, Dutch, Polish and Italian, the languages of a number of the smaller and more recently arrived communities have not yet been the subject to the same degree of in-depth investigation. This study involves one of the latter group—the Portuguese and Timorese community. The focus was restricted to investigating the two major languages of the community, Portuguese and Tetum, over a twenty-year period in Darwin in the Northern Territory. 

    The study sought to identify factors which have encouraged and nurtured the vitality of the Portuguese and Tetum languages spoken by members of the Portuguese and Timorese community in Darwin: the degree to which they have maintained patterns of language use similar to those used in East Timor, how they endeavour to maintain their languages, and whether the pro-independence for East Timor movement has been a factor in this maintenance. The specific focus was confined to the use of Portuguese in the major domains of home, friendship and leisure and recreation, given that there is little recognition of or institutional support for the language in the area of service provision and delivery in the wider community. In addition, the political domain was also explored as it was considered to be of particular significance for this study which centred on a community whose sociohistorical background included an extended period of colonial presence, the promise of self-determination and independence, and then invasion and the imposition of a new colonial master. The study was conducted at a time during which the plight of East Timor re-emerged as a subject of national and international political and human rights debate as a result of the Dili massacre in November 1991 and the arrest, trial and subsequent imposition of life sentence on Xanana Gusmo in 1993. The primary data were obtained from interviews with 60 members of the local Portuguese-East Timorese community. Members of the Chinese-Timorese community were not identified for the formal interview process. Those people interviewed represented a range of age groups and differing length of residence periods in Australia: pre-1975, those who came as migrants: 1975-1986, those who arrived as refugees and under the family reunion program: and subsequent arrivals 1987-1993, as part of the special humanitarian and special assistance program. People from each of these groups were selected. 

    The primary data obtained from the interviews were analysed in relation to the factors and variables posited by Kloss (1966) and refined for the Australian context by Clyne (1972) as those which can lead to language maintenance or language shift and those which are ambivalent. The secondary data were acquired by extensive bibliographic research, limited participant observation and informal interviews with people other than those selected for the interview questionnaire. This information turned out to be of critical importance in helping to explain some of the significant events described in the background to this study. 

    Findings from the interview-administered questionnaires revealed strong maintenance patterns for both languages in the three domains and across all three groups with kinship relationships, allegiance to secular associations, use of the media and contact with the homeland being the important factors in promoting maintenance. The status of Portuguese has in no way diminished but Tetum, the major indigenous language and lingua franca of East Timor is becoming an important symbol and identity marker of East Timoreseness' for those who hold strong allegiance to the pro-independence movement. The investigation showed that the political situation in the homeland plays a most significant role in promoting the maintenance of Tetum which is now vulnerable in East Timor. Efforts are being made by the East Tirnorese community in Darwin to standardise Tetum and to provide a range of literacy contexts for contemporary use,
    Date of Award1994
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorBrian Devlin (Supervisor)

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