Indigenous communities demand legislation to protect mother tongues

By Belinda Torres-Leclercq
Published On: Fri, Feb 21st, 2014

Across a country dominated by Spanish, indigenous people unite on International Mother Language Day to prevent further extinction of Chile’s oldest languages.

People from the indigenous group Tinkus dancing

The indigenous Tinkus group in Santiago on Friday evening, dancing to raise awareness of Chile’s indigenous languages. Photo by Belinda Torres-Leclercq / The Santiago Times

Indigenous communities around the country held events in recognition of their native tongues Friday, as speakers of Chile’s oldest languages struggle to prevent their oral traditions fading from memory.

From workshops in La Serena to marches in Temuco, descendants of the country’s first inhabitants marked UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, established in 1999 to commemorate three students in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who were shot and killed by police in 1952 while demonstrating for the recognition of their native Bengali language.

Participants stressed that promoting the use of native languages among the young in Chile’s indigenous communities is just one aspect of the fight to prevent the extinction of the five native languages that remain in the country.

Carmen Clavijo, director of the magazine Ajayu which covers indigenous Aymara issues in the country’s North, said that the government has done little to preserve native languages on a legislative level.

“We want [Aymara] to be added to the school curriculum. There should be a language law,” Morales told The Santiago Times. “There aren’t many Aymara speaking people anymore, so we have to save our language.”

Outside of Spanish, English is the only compulsory language on the national curriculum in Chile. While Chile’s native languages were “recognized” in the Indigenous Law in 1993, Spanish is upheld as both the de-facto official language and administrative language of the country. Indigenous communities have campaigned unsuccessfully to have indigenous languages recognized as valid for official use in administrative and legal procedures in the regions where they are most commonly spoken.

According to Chile’s latest 2012 Census , 11 percent the country’s near 17 million people consider themselves indigenous with over one third living in the capital. Of the 11 languages recognized among Chile’s nine indigenous communities, only five remain. The languages Chango, Atacameño, Diaguita, Selk’nam, Yagan and Chono have disappeared. Rapa Nui is still spoken on Easter Island, while Aymara, Quechua, Kawashkar and Mapudungun are used in disparate regions across the mainland.

Mapudungun is the most commonly used language among the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous community. It is thought that less than 115,000 of the estimated 1,400,000 Mapuches in Chile speak Mapudungun fluently.

On Friday in Temuco, the capital of Araucanía — the region with the highest Mapuche population — people marched for the third consecutive year demanding Mapudungun be recognized as an official language within the region.

In La Serena on Wednesday, Ajayu organized activities focused on children including illustration workshops to visually represent Aymara words — the drawings were later placed in the public library. On Friday, young native speakers took to the streets as “kid-reporters,” teaching their language and culture to the public.

The Network for Linguistic and Cultural Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile (Red EIB) organized several activities throughout the country as well as an online “Twitter storm” using the hashtag #díalenguasindigenas to promote language diversity throughout Chile.

“This [campaign] is very important, as different languages have a different way of thinking and looking at the world,” Elisa Loncon, Red EIB event organizer and Mapuche academic at the Universidad de Santiago, told The Santiago Times. “A monolingual country misses out on something — we are a multilingual country with a strong heritage.”

While there are 400 bilingual schools throughout the country, Loncon said these schools are restricted by poor quality control and a lack of specialists. Both Red EIB and the Mapuche political party Wallmapuwen believe such problems could be combated by the compulsory inclusion of indigenous languages in school curriculums via the creation of a linguistic rights act.

Loncon said that President-elect Michelle Bachelet’s pledge to create an Indigenous Affairs Ministry is a positive step toward the creation of such legislation.

According to Anna Luisa Daigneault, other positive signs are beginning to arise. Daigneault — who conducts fieldwork in Chile on indigenous languages for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages — told The Santiago times that she found the revitalization of Mapudungun to be strong. During her research she found that the amount of speakers transmitting the language to children encouraging, as well as the quality of bilingual teachers she encountered.

“Having an International Mother Language Day is very important for raising awareness around the world,” Daigneault said “It’s not only a day for the indigenous population but also for non-indigenous peoples, as language helps cultures to better understand each other.”

Source: The Santiago Times

Back to top