“Can you speak Tetun yet?”

A question I had reading the later entries of expat blogs before I left Australia, and something I thought about this morning, feeling teary and helpless on a microlet, bleating deskulpa hau la komprende – I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

I’ve been living in Dili for three months now – the first filled with daily four-hour-long Tetun classes; the second two with full-time work in an English-speaking office – and thought I’d revisit a post I wrote in my first week here about my experience of language-learning.

I successfully finished the four weeks of class and reached a level of fluency you’d probably expect – as a higher-level beginner, I could order food, direct a taxi, introduce myself and say, “sorry, I don’t speak Tetun”. I struggled with listening comprehension, and even now still rely heavily on the phrase hatete fali – “say again” – when teachers and taxi drivers speak, and I’m still totally lost if I hear Tetun in unfamiliar circumstances (making my list of available conversation topics very limited and very self-centred. But if our conversation’s exclusively about where I lived in Australia, great news!).

I know malae here who yabber away in fluent, natural-sounding Tetun, and I know a heap of foreigners who limp through basic-ass primary-school sentences like I do – but for some reason, I don’t know anyone in the gulf in the middle. Where are the people who can make easy conversation without panicking; who could write this post in Tetun without quite publishing an academic paper?

Malae doyenne Catharina Williams-van Klinken, a linguist and academic (and the head of the language school at DIT, where I did my Tetun classes), opines in this paper it’s a common plateau many foreigners experience, and comes from a combination of achieving the complacency of food-ordering fluency, the ever-forgiving Timorese people’s natural disinclination to correct, and from the safety net of the enormous knowledge of English here in Timor. And, of course, the fact that it’s exponentially more difficult to progress to the next level the more Tetun you know (in those first few weeks, my vocabulary was tripling every day).

It’s embarrassing to try and learn more, we don’t see immediate, exponential success, and we can get away without it – a perfect storm of excuses not to knuckle down.

Until an unfamiliar microlet shows up.

This morning on my way to work, a number four microlet flashed its lights at me as I waited on the corner. I shook my head no – I catch either the three or the 10 – but the driver beckoned, so I asked, in Tetun, “Do you go to Audian?” He replied yes and I got in. Two Timorese men were inside and we shared polite smiles as the driver pulled away from the curb. Then, the questions started. I didn’t realise the first few were directed at me until they were followed by an, “Ey! Ey!“. I snapped my eyes up and met the driver’s enquiring gaze in the rearview mirror.

Deskupla,” I started – sorry – then my favourite, “hatete fali?” Say again?

A flurry of garbled, unfamilar vowel sounds. I repeated my request.

The same again. “Deskulpa,” I said, neck burning, “hau la komprende.” I don’t understand.

A polite nod in the mirror and silence for a couple of stops before the voice came again.

Senhora!

That time, I knew it was for me.

Sim?”

More unfamiliar vowel sounds. I couldn’t even pick a word out. I felt three pairs of eyes on me and willed the microlet to go faster.

Then, a familar word – servicu. Work.

Hau servico iha Audian!” I bleated, proudly.

“Audian iha nebee?” Where in Audian?

I tried to describe where my work was near, but there are no close landmarks (the suburb Audian seems to be unending stretches of delis and plastic-goods shops, with no clear standouts to use as landmarks). The driver – fairly – interepreted my silence as failing to understand the question, and asked another one. Again, I didn’t understand, and self-conscious tears pricked behind my eyes as the other passengers looked politely at their feet and the microlet trundled on.

And so it went on, for another 15 minutes – the patient driver trying to make chit-chat, me hearing and replying to about a tenth of what he said, my neck burning with humiliation and my fellow passengers sitting silently – until I spied the blue wall of my work’s closest plastic shop and tip-tapped my coin on the microlet’s metal bar. I handed over my fare as I hopped out.

Deskulpa,” I said, wearily. “Hau nia Tetun – ahh – la diak. Sorry. I’m sorry.”

The driver grinned goodbye and the bus lurched off.

Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.

Said by the author Alain de Botton, and shared on Facebook today by BrainPickings. I saw it as I scrolled on my lunch break, in the comfortable cool of Pateo’s coffee bar (a Portuguese supermarket I frequent often for $1 espressos that can be summoned by throwing the easy “espresso ida!” to the counter girl).

What a reminder. I was utterly humiliated by myself this morning – by my lack of knowledge, by how uncoolly I dealt with not knowing – and it’s actually an awesome thing to be able to experience. Learning Tetun is teaching me more about myself.

So, how can Tetun learners proceed past this plateau to a higher level of proficiency? First of all, they need to resist the temptation to simply give up, keeping in mind that a temporary halt in progress is a normal phase of language learning. It will only become a permanent state if the learner allows it to become one.

With intelligent perseverance and adequate help, it is indeed possible for the vast majority of learners to reach higher levels of language proficiency, which not only aids their work, but also enriches their lives and relationships in East Timor.

From Catherina’s paper.

This afternoon, I have my third private Tetun class with DIT’s mestre Alex. And now, I’m looking forward to my hour of regular embarrassment.

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