Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Guatemala’s Next Language Challenge: Toward a Polyglot Future

         When the Spanish army led by the Alvarado brothers besieged the Mayan nation in Mesoamerica in early–mid 1500’s, the Quichean speakers they encountered were at the apogee of their civilization. Prior to the conquest thousands of years had transpired when the Mayan languages developed, evolved, flourished, and changed due to, for example, language contact, migrations, geographical landscapes, and social interventions. Today, Guatemala has 4.5 million people that speak between 22 to 27 different languages other than Spanish, and thousands are monolingual speakers of their native language. Despite the fact that an unknown number of Maya languages have vanished, scientists recognize the Mayan’s enormous historical and aesthetic contributions in the form of literary accomplishments. Indeed, the richness in the manifold diversity that is unique to Guatemala’s linguistic tapestry is of great pride to the Guatemalans, and a growing majority of them want to keep their native languages alive and thriving.  (See brief historical account of Guatemala and see also Las lenguas Mayas: Historia y diversidad.)
Credit: Tubín, Verdugo, & Jiménez (2010, 39).
     To this end, the work and advocacy of bilingual educators in the indigenous community sectors of the country have created a campaign to improve the bilingual educational programs and implement new programs, particularly in schools where the native language is threatened.  Schools have become an important venue to not only teach children in both Spanish and their native languages, but to promote bilingualism, and to ensure the intergenerational transmission of the native language among families. But, are these efforts enough to accomplish the difficult task of linguistic sustainability?

     In the Case of Santa María, presented in the following paragraphs, the voices of bilingual teachers, parents, and administrators speak to the issues in their efforts to implement a successful bilingual intercultural education program. Unraveling the problems and framing the issues reveal a profile of a struggling program, despite the impressive, enormous work behind their efforts.

The Proyecto Linguístico de Santa María (PLSM)

The Video

            The Proyecto Lingüístico de Santa María (PLSM) is a non-profit social and educational organization and amongst its main funders is the Canadian agency, Horizontes de Amistad (Horizons of Friendship). Their purpose is to advocate for change and improvement in the social and economic inequalities among the indigenous communities. They fund projects that educate teachers and parents about the advantages of bilingual intercultural education. In PLSM’s brief video, Situación Legal de Educación Bilingüe en Guatemala. the project's coordinator, Obispo Rosales Yax, leads a discussion on the legal basis for bilingual intercultural education, followed by promotional and testimonial interviews with parents and teachers from a K’iche – Spanish language school, Escuela Official Rural Mixta de Chuisuc (EORM), in the area of Santa María, Quetzaltenango in the western highlands of Guatemala. The thematic thread emphasized throughout the video, i.e., Guatemala has a legal basis for the implementation of a bilingual education program in all their schools, is substantiated with supportive documentation. Amongst the Legal Documents or Acuerdos y Leyes are the following, which I included in my discussion in a previous blog on University of San Carlos student protests.

          Guatemala’s constitution, Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala in Sección Tercera, Comunidades Indigenas, the Constitution recognizes, respects and promotes the communities’ “forma de vida…..idiomas y dialectos.” The subsequent section on Education alludes to the country’s responsibility to educate the youth since  education is a right.

            The Acuerdo sobre identidad y derechos de los pueblos indígenas, was the fifth of twelve peace treaties promulgated by the Guatemalan government in 1997 after the 36-year armed conflict that left 200,000 people dead and destroyed thousands of families and their properties. The overall content of the treaty is specific to eradicating discriminatory practices against the indigenous population, especially women. However, the protection of rights also includes the linguistic right of the people to learn to speak, read, and write their non-Spanish language in all public institutions of learning.  The inclusion provision is paramount in the treaty’s statements of recognition and acceptance of the pueblos’ identities, cultures, and languages. About half of Guatemala’s population belongs to an indigenous community.

            The document, United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the major rights to their culture, languages, and dignity thereof, but specifically states in Articles 15 and 19 respectively that educational programs reflect the diverse cultures and languages, and that decision-making related to content and curriculum be inclusive and representative of the indigenous groups.

            The Convenio or Convention number 169 of the International Labor Organization, an off-shoot of the United Nations, passed in 1991 a revision of the 1957 declaration of the rights of pueblos indígenas y tribales that included in Part Six, Articles 26 – 31, the rights of the people to have a direct input into the educational programs in public education and that they are judicially represented in all matters of education.

            The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions that underscores that linguistic diversity is an essential part of cultural diversity and that education plays a key role in the protection and promotion of cultural expressions.  A recurring theme in this document is that cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity.

            Although the legal basis for bilingual education is well documented, and the voices of the school community express their unflinching support for the program, the missing piece, i.e., the implementation component is perhaps the most essential part of the integral plan. Parents, teachers, and administrators’ comments in the video emphatically express the concern over the lack of leadership in administering the bilingual intercultural program at every level, from the administration to the classroom, and in the school community.

The Study

            The Proyecto Lingüístico surveyed and analyzed the bilingual intercultural education programs in 50 schools in Quetzaltenango and Totonícapan. Their report, Principales indicadores de la educación bilingüe intercultural (located in their website), outlines the positive areas of the schools as well as their shortcomings. The results are familiar to bilingual educators in Texas and elsewhere in United States, affirming the fact that bilingual education programs have commonalities across international boundaries. About three-fourths of the teachers surveyed agree on the importance of bilingual education and its positive impact on the cognitive and self-esteem of the students. There is similar agreement on the benefits of the program for the school community and at-large. The teachers’ responses strongly indicated that there is a need for bilingual education for the purpose of maintaining the native language, with the concern that increasingly less parents are speaking or transmitting the native language to their children. The interruption in intergenerational transmission of the native language is one of the “red flags” in determining the high-threatening level of a native language.
            The study pointed out some of the similar needs for improvement found in bilingual education programs in the United States. For example, the training of bilingual teachers is a priority as is the accessibility to quality instructional materials in the native language. The teachers voiced their disapproval for the lack of support, supervision, and training from the administrative levels. The lack of adequate funding for the program was perceived as a major concern.

Assessing the Vitality of the Languages To Analyze Their Intergenerational Transmission

            The lack of leadership is only one of many roadblocks that complicate the process for successfully implementing the bilingual education program. Many factors consider the extent to which a language will thrive or fall under the threat of extinction. A methodology for assessing language vitality and endangerment from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) include the following criteria:
  1.  Community members’ attitudes towards their own language;
  2. The extent to which the language(s) is used for governmental and institutional purposes;
  3. The availability of quality materials for use in schools and community literacy education;
  4. The proportion of speakers within the total population; and
  5. How the language(s) respond to new domains in a changing world and flexibility in terms of use in different contexts for different purposes.
            Ethnologue Languages of the World focuses on the uses and functions of the language in question to determine an index of endangerment. Two important indicators mentioned by Ethnologue are the official recognition of languages within the nation, and the non-linguistic factors such as economic opportunity that promote language use and its further development.

            Educating children in a quality bilingual intercultural educational program is by far one of the most important actions in the process of language sustainability. But in addition to these efforts is the fundamental promotion and use of the language in various domains, including institutional functions. Assessing language vitality as well as language planning and language-in-education implementation is an important endeavor but require time and responsibility (see my language policy paper on South Texas schools.


            According to UNESCO, if we don’t take appropriate measures to ensure the survival of indigenous languages, in just two generations half of the existing 6000 languages in our planet will die. And, of course, the most vulnerable are the indigenous languages. Language loss or language death is a serious matter when considering the consequences and its impact on humanity. In Guatemala, two languages are endangered, Itzá and Xinca. In fact Ethnologue lists the Xinca language as extinct (see complete list of Guatemala's languages and their statuses). However,  Xinca, a non-Maya language, is in the process of revitalization due to the efforts of the pueblo or community as I reported in a previous blog post

          A language holds the key to specific knowledge and understanding; it is a voice of many in our universe that makes us who we are as people. Our diversity, in all its dimensions, is essential just like our environment requires biodiversity (see UNESCO’s statement on how maintaining indigenous languages is conserving biodiversity).

            Guatemala’s language challenge is our challenge as well. A vision of a polyglot nation for Guatemala is our vision and the future of our world. Learning language begins at home, but the responsibility for second language learning and beyond is a shared endeavor. In an ever changing digitized world, citizens must learn at least three languages – the native language, the dominant language, and English or another comparable “power” language. But first, we start with a deep and broad understanding of the issues; simultaneously, we value our own and others’ language(s) and culture(s), preserving the diversity within; making sure that children become the knowledgeable and caring individuals needed for our changing polyglot world.

          In closing, I include the poem, Cuando muere una lengua that brings into focus perhaps, the most important aspect of language - its human qualities. (Note: grammatical errors are features due to translation.)

Cuando muere una lengua
        Traducido del Nahuatl por Miguel León Portillo

Cuando muere una lengua
las cosas divinas, estrellas, sol y luna,
las cosas humanas, pensar y sentir,
no se reflejan en ese espejo.

Cuando muere una lengua
todo lo que hay en el mundo,
mares y ríos, animales y plantas,
ni se piensen, ni se pronuncian
con atisbos, con sonidos,
que no existen ya.

Cuando muere una lengua
se cierre a todos los pueblos del mundo,
una puerta, una ventana,
un asomarse,
de modo distinto a las cosas divinas y humanas
en cuanto es ser y vida en la tierra.

Cuando muere una lengua,
sus palabras de amor,
entonación de dolor y querencias,
tal vez viejos cantos,
relatos, discursos, plegarias,
nadie, cual fueran,
jamás alcanzará a repetir.

Cuando muere una lengua,
ya mucho han muerto,
y mucho mas pueden morir,
espejos para siempre quebrados,
sombras de voces
siempre acalladas,
la humanidad se empobreze,

Cuando muere una lengua.

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