Launch to Timor-Leste: Embracing people, culture and language

By John Tan  |  Wycliffe Today Autumn 2024 Edition

John and Remy Tan are Wycliffe Australia members based at the National Centre in Melbourne. They recently took a short-term assignment, spending six weeks in Timor-Leste to assist in the Australia Timor-Leste Group (ATG) office in Dili. John explains how SIL Australia’s Launch language learning and cultural awareness course prepared them for their short-term assignment. 

We found our ‘workation’ in Timor-Leste was a refreshing time with the Lord. I helped record and edit the books of Ruth and Mark in the local Mambae language. Remy led an in-house staff training session on record keeping and management. 

When you spend time with people from a different country and language, it helps to immerse yourself in their culture, and SILA’s Launch course was great preparation. At the end of our short-term mission assignment in Timor-Leste, our hosts reported that we connected positively with their team. They enjoyed our friendliness and willingness to learn their language, eat their food and sing their songs. I thought SILA’s summer Launch course prepared us well for this assignment. The four modules of the course laid the foundation for our positive service in Timor-Leste:

Language Learning

Most Timorese people know many languages, but they are more comfortable using their national language of Tetum Dili. While they practised English, we practised Tetum Dili by getting used to sounds over lunchtime conversations and attending church services. We added to our vocabulary by using ‘power-tool phrases’ like ‘how do you say … ?’ then reviewed everything by reading Scripture and a dictionary.

Language Awareness

As time went on, we learned to construct our own sentences, as we learned how to arrange noun and verb phrases and other words in the right order.


My assignment in Dili was to record two books of the Bible in the Mambae language. The phonetics training helped me listen for voiced and voiceless consonants, aspiration and plosives. This helped me know what to look for in the audio wave diagrams as I was editing.

Cultural Anthropology

I found it interesting to learn about the Timorese people: their worldview, mythology, geography and history. They also invited us to weddings and welcomed us into their lives. We felt embraced by the people and will treasure the time we spent in Timor-Leste.

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