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East Timorese schoolchildren learning Finnish?

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In an effort to break with their colonial past, schools in East Timor are reportedly teaching first graders in Finnish. Although it has the hallmarks of an urban legend (e.g., the canard that the Timorese language Tetum has a “primitive grammar”), the Finnish press is reporting the story as fact and of course bloggers are picking it up.

Finnish is one of the most isolated languages of Europe, distantly related to Hungarian and Turkish but spoken by very few non-Finns. It’s also considered one of the most difficult languages for non-natives to learn. Supposedly its appeal to the East Timorese is that Finnish is neutral, Finland having little history of conquest, while Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia and English all have colonial associations in Timor. Timor’s precolonial languages are said to be too fragmented by dialects to serve as a unifying force.

For some lively discussion, see the link at Making Light. Participants are having a field day suggesting alternatives like Esperanto or Klingon. I’m surprised no one has suggested Basque, the only European language that clearly beats Finnish in difficulty and isolation. More seriously, a better alternative than any language without historical roots in Timor might be to attempt to codify a fusion of the Timorese dialects. Language planners have attempted something similar with other languages, notably Romani, the highly fragmented language spoken by Gypsies worldwide.

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