Why the Official Languages of Timor-Leste Include Portuguese

Why the Official Languages of Timor-Leste Include Portuguese

It's the only country in Southeast Asia with Portuguese as one of its official languages.

Except for Thailand, all countries in Southeast Asia were colonised by a European nation at one or more points in their national history. And as a result, the residents of these places adapted their colonisers’ native tongue as their own in some type of way or level.

Notably, Spanish-origin words are widely used to this day in the Philippines, despite its official languages being Filipino and English. On the other hand, did you know that Portuguese is recognised as one of the official languages of Timor-Leste or East Timor? In fact, as some foreigners might find surprising, it’s the only Southeast Asian country where this is the case.

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Official languages of Timor Leste

Officially called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, this tropical country sharing the Timor archipelago with Indonesia has people (though quite a few) speaking the Portuguese language. The reason being Timor-Leste was under Portuguese rule from 1702 up to 1975. This precedes its Indonesian colonisation from 1975 to 2002.

Image credit: pepifoto via Canva Pro

During the Portuguese era, the Timorese spoke Portuguese along with the native Tetum. It’s an Austranesian language that also has significant Portuguese influence. When Timor-Leste gained independence at the onset of the 21st century, Portuguese and Tetum were formalised as its official languages. Indonesian was only made a “working” language alongside English.

Tetum, or Tetun, remains the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste; only less than half of its around one million population use Portuguese. At least 15 other indigenous languages are likewise spoken throughout the small nation. Most of them are of either Austronesian and Papuan origin, including Fataluku, Galole, Kemak, Mambae, and some variations of Tetum.

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With Portuguese as one of the official languages of Timor-Leste, the country has made itself the only Asian country to join the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. It’s an international organisation consisting of countries where Portuguese is officially spoken. The others include Angola, Brazil, Mozambique, and of course, Portugal.

Featured image credit: Carlos Henrique | Unsplash

About Author

Joser Ferreras
Joser Ferreras

Joser is a senior writer for TripZilla based in Manila, Philippines. He mostly covers travel, people, and business.