• Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmao with her family. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Kirsty Sword Gusmao reflects on how language forms a young person's identity.
Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmao

26 Nov 2018 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2018 - 10:59 AM

My learning of a foreign language – Bahasa Indonesia – at high school was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with our largest northern neighbour. Not only did a fluent command of the Indonesian language offer me a privileged glimpse into the hearts and souls of Indonesians from all walks of life, cementing a deep and abiding affection for the country, it also offered me an entrée into a world that couldn’t have been further from my privileged and peaceful life in Melbourne; the world of the East Timorese resistance to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation.

Over 10 years or so dating from the mid-1980s, I offered up my language skills to the cause of Timor-Leste’s independence struggle. Along the way I acquired skills in the Portuguese language (the language of Timor’s former colonial power and a powerful symbol of resistance to Indonesian rule) and a husband in Xanana Gusmao – but that is a rather long story!

When our three sons were born within years of the declaration of Timor-Leste’s independence, I was determined that they would grow up bilingual, equally proficient in both English and Portuguese. I knew that in order for this to work, the boys would need to identify a particular language with a particular parent. The reality of our lives was, however, that Xanana was not only a father to his three sons, he was also the father of a new and fledgling nation and this meant that he was rarely at home.

I often ponder what they have missed out on by not being able to listen in to the stories their father shares in Portuguese and Tetum with other veterans of the resistance war

Inevitably, the boys grew up hearing far more English and Tetum (Timor-Leste’s second co-official language alongside Portuguese) than they did Portuguese. Today they have little more than a passive understanding of Portuguese and rudimentary Tetum which has declined in fluency since our move to Melbourne in 2014. My boys’ inferior knowledge of the language of the country of their birth causes them some embarrassment during visits back to Timor-Leste, but more sadly this language barrier has tipped the balance towards a greater identification with Australian society and culture than with their Timorese roots.

In the course of Christmas visits to Dili, my sons struggle to communicate with their cousins, aunts and uncles and even a simple visit to the corner fruit store can prove to be excruciating (what’s the word for “small change” again, Mum?). I often ponder what they have missed out on by not being able to listen in to the stories their father shares in Portuguese and Tetum with other veterans of the resistance war.

Since becoming Timor-Leste’s Goodwill Ambassador for Education in 2007, I have been advocating for the rights of Timorese children to learn at school in the language they know best. In Timor’s case this may be one of some 17 local languages spoken across the country, many edging ever closer to extinction. Sadly many Timorese children’s experiences of education, which favours the official languages as languages of instruction, have a lot in common with 40 per cent of kids globally who acquire their literacy in a foreign language. In addition, the loss of minority languages drives a wedge between children, their grandparents and traditional culture.

It is also a tale of the human need to belong and the power of language in shaping identity

Having to transition between two worlds, two cultures and two languages is something many children, particularly refugees, have to navigate, and my own family’s experience was one of a number of reasons that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s book project My Two Blankets resonated so strongly with me and ultimately lead to my role coordinating the project.

My Two Blankets”, a children’s picture book by Australian author, Irena Kobald, is the story of Cartwheel, a young girl forced by war to flee her home and seek a new life in a foreign land. It is also a tale of the human need to belong and the power of language in shaping identity. Being a narrative that resonates in a very real way with the experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum, it was the perfect choice of book to form the basis of a recent ASRC bilingual book project, which has been translated into Arabic, Farsi and Dari as the most spoken languages of our community of people seeking asylum. .

I feel so lucky that my children have had access to a treasure trove of quality children’s literature in English throughout their formative years in Timor-Leste. The availability of books in a language shared by children and their parents is a precious resource, enabling the sharing of stories and joy in the interplay of words and images. The translation of “My Two Blankets” into Arabic, Farsi and Dari is a small but heartfelt contribution to expanding the body of literature available to other families who are speakers of our minority community languages.

I trust this beautiful book will bring enjoyment and comfort to all the children and families like my own who have experienced the pain and the privilege of moving beyond the safety and warmth of one’s old blanket.

Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmao, AO is Goodwill Ambassador for Education of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and Community Engagement and Development Program Coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood (published by ASRC and Hardie Grant Egmont), is available at all good bookstores and online.

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