The lingua franca and national language of East Timor is Tetum, which is a Malayo-Polynesian language influenced by Portuguese, with which it has equal status as an official language. Fataluku, a Papuan language widely used in the eastern part of the country (often more so than Tetum) has official recognition under the constitution, as do other indigenous languages, including: Bekais, Bunak, Dawan, Fataluku, Galoli, Habun, Idalaka, Kawaimina, Kemak, Lovaia, Makalero, Makasai, Mambai, Tokodede and Wetarese.

Under Portuguese rule, all education was through the medium of Portuguese, although it coexisted with Tetum and other languages. Portuguese particularly influenced the dialect of Tetum spoken in the capital, Dili, known as Tetun Prasa, as opposed to the more traditional version spoke in rural areas, known as Tetun Terik. Tetun Prasa is the version more widely used, and is now taught in schools.

The Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia, has ceased to be an official language, although it, along with English, has the status of a 'working language' under the Constitution. It is still widely spoken, particularly among younger people who were educated entirely under the Indonesian system, under which the use of either Portuguese or Tetum were banned.

For many older East Timorese, the Indonesian language has negative connotations with the Suharto regime, but many younger people have expressed suspicion or hostility to the reinstatement of Portuguese, which they see as a 'colonial language' in much the same way that Indonesians saw Dutch. However, whereas the Dutch culture and language had little influence on those of Indonesia, the East Timorese and Portuguese cultures became intertwined, particularly through intermarriage, as did the languages.

Young East Timorese have also felt at a disadvantage by the use of Portuguese, and accuse the country's leaders of favouring people who have only recently returned from overseas. However, even those older East Timorese who do speak Portuguese, having been in the resistance, have not found jobs despite their proficiency in the language.

Many foreign observers, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia have also been critical about the reinstatement of Portuguese. Some of these previously supported of Indonesian rule in East Timor, although others, supported East Timor's right to self-determination. In spite of this, many Australian linguists have been closely involved with the official language policy, including the promotion of Portuguese.

Although Portugal has been closely involved with the teaching of Portuguese in East Timor, there has also been support from Brazil, although there have been complaints from people in East Timor that teachers from Portugal and Brazil are poorly equipped to teach in the country, as they do not know local languages, or understand the local culture.

However, the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who headed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, was a Brazilian who not only established a close working relationship with Xanana Gusmão (now the country's President) as a fellow Portuguese-speaker, but was also respected by many East Timorese because of his efforts to learn Tetum.

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