The power of indigenous languages

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Nearly 100 Indian languages i8n Mexico and Central America are facing extinction. In an attempt to keep them alive, teachers are coming up with new means of documenting the languages and passing them on to the younger generation.
 
By Pilar Porral
 
“I went back to my village and continued speaking Zapoteco. I’ve always thought that language is a means of exerting power”, says Ernesto Hernández Andrade. He decided to keep his mother tongue alive despite having left his community at the age of 11.
 
Hernández is doing a Ph.D. in linguistics at the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in the Mexican state of Chiapas. In his free time, he teaches students in his community how to write their native language, Zapoteco. The language is spoken in the northern part of Oaxaca and the state of Veracruz. According to the linguist, “the number of speakers is falling, as is the case for other Indian languages”.
 
To encourage his students, he tells them an anecdote about when he and his neighbours were being harassed by the police over a land dispute. “We spoke in Zapoteco so the police couldn’t understand us. By the time the police realised what was going on, we were already putting our plan into action.”
Since then, Hernández Andrade has become a leader who represents his community on land issues. “People look up to me because I have maintained my identity.”
 
Discrimination
“Some adults don’t teach their children their indigenous language because they don’t want them to experience the same discrimination they did”, explains Hernández Andrade.
 
Eladio Mateo Toledo, who’s a specialist in language studies at CIESAS, says “the problem isn’t that people are discriminating against indigenous languages but against indigenous peoples”.  According to Mateo Toledo, indigenous peoples don’t have access to government services like health and education. “That’s why their languages aren’t spoken in those sectors.”
 
Lack of equality
Javier López, the director of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), agrees: “even though indigenous languages and Spanish are equal in legal terms, a lot of work still needs to be done to achieve that in the public and private domain”. López Sánchez believes speaking one’s own language is a fundamental human right and says there needs to be “an integrated development plan for indigenous peoples in terms of the economy, politics, culture and language”.  
 
Research indicates there are 32 languages dying out in Central America because they’re only spoken by the elderly and another 50 languages are in a vulnerable state. In Mexico there are 64 languages “at high risk of disappearing.
 
Documenting traditions
To try and help rescue these languages, Mateo Toledo came up with a new way of documenting the traditional use of Q’anjob’al  in the village of Santa Eulalia in northeastern Guatemala. “Stories, prayers, recipes and cures - these are all essential parts of a language. If they are lost, the language starts to die.”
 
For the project, native people have been trained in documentation or linguistics so that the information can be used not only by the academic world but also indigenous peoples. “The native specialists have a stronger connection with the community and are less likely to abandon the project”, says Mateo.
 
More than 300 hours of traditional uses have been recorded on tape, 50 hours on video, 100 hours in transcribed and translated texts and three books. Efforts are now being made to obtain additional funding to study another variation of Q’anjob’al in the Guatemalan village of San Juan Ixcoy.