What future awaits the mother tongues in Guatemala?
International Day of Mother Tongues was established by the UNESCO General Conference in November 1999, nevertheless, it was not until 2002 that it was officially celebrated with the objective of promoting multilingualism and cultural diversity.
Worldwide, it is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 languages, of these 43% are in danger of extinction according to the United Nations.
The native peoples and their languages in Latin America
In Latin America, from Patagonia to northern Mexico, there are currently 522 indigenous peoples, with 420 distinct languages. Brazil is the country with the most ethnic diversity, 241 peoples inhabit its territory, Colombia follows with 83, Mexico with 67 and Peru with 43 indigenous peoples, respectively.
However, countries like Bolivia, Guatemala and Belize stand out in Latin America for being territories where the indigenous population makes up the majority of the total population.
As regards languages, Quechua is the most commonly spoken in Latin America and it also extends to regions of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, according to UNICEF data for the Sociolinguistic Atlas of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America project.
Guatemala, diverse, multilingual and multicultural territory
Guatemala is a country with broad ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity: 25 languages are spoken, among them 22 Mayan, garífuna, xinca and Spanish according to the General Directorate of Intercultural Bilingual Education (DIGEBI). There is little “official” data about Mayan languages, according to various sources, the K’iche’ language is the most commonly spoken, by approximately 1 million inhabitants.
Being such a diverse country where the majority population is indigenous still gives rise to deep contradictions, for example, that the official language is still Spanish or Castilian, the promotion of teaching foreign languages in the educational system, the promotion of Castilian monolingual education, among other mechanisms of racist origin, promotes the disappearance of languages in Guatemala.
Digital activists in Mayan languages
Ericka Guadalupe Vásquez Flores, Mayan K’iche’ woman, with a Salvadoran mother and a Guatemalan father, from the Chuatroj village of the municipality and department of Totonicapán, sociolinguist by profession and teacher of the K’iche’ language, shares with us the importance of the promotion of mother tongues from her own knowledge and experience.
Can you tell us about yourself, your work and its relation to the preservation/promotion of mother tongues?
Since I was little, my grandparents spoke to me in the K’iche’ language, I grew up among cousins, playing among the rows of corn, making little things out of mud, all the time our means of communication was the K’iche’ language, I always felt proud to speak it from primary school until university.
I worked as a teacher in a basic education institute teaching that then L-1 language, K’iche’, in 2018 my last year of work, changes were made in the National Base Curriculum (NBC) changing the L-1 language, K’iche’ to Mayan Culture and Language, more than the name, they also changed core content that undermined languages, the structure, grammar and essential elements of culture were no longer seen. So I designed my own content, based on the competencies of the NBC.
In 2008 I developed a certification with teachers from the entire department of Totonicapán who teach in the area of Mayan culture and language, we designed a methodologic guide of the K’iche’ language to guide the teaching work in the classroom. Since then we have been creating workshops and certifications for the learning and dissemination of the mother tongue.
I work as a technical-pedagogical facilitator at Punto Crea-Proyecto Puentes, a space for young creators, We develop competencies in the STEAM areas in its acronym in English, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, from a community context, It is impressive how young people while assembling small sensors or learning technological platforms do it from their own context and language.
I am a digital activist in Mayan languages, I’m starting a language teaching project and very soon a YouTube channel, taking advantage of the technological resource that we already have within our reach.
I am also a volunteer promoter of the Freedom for the Migrant project, our work is to support the interpretation of the K’iche language to Spanish and vice versa to people in detention centers in the United States due to not being able to communicate in Spanish with lawyers.
Could you name us some projects that are carried out in Guatemala for the promotion of these languages? Who is responsible for taking actions to promote the mother tongues?
Currently there are various projects that have arisen from the need to disseminate and protect the languages but they are small projects that originate even from a single person, like digital activism, many currently use digital platforms to teach Mayan languages.
In articles 58 and 66, the constitution clearly defines the recognition, respect and promotion of Mayan languages as an individual and collective right expressed as an obligatory state compliance mandate, but creative policies to enforce this mandate do not exist.
Others charged with spreading languages in Guatemala are the Ministry of Education and the Academy of Mayan Languages, nevertheless, little has been done, for many reasons, lack of human and budgetary resources among them. There are many laws that protect the rescue and dissemination of the Mayan Languages in Guatemala, but they have not been complied with, there is no supervision in schools and teachers have a degree of responsibility to do bilingual education in the Classroom, even more those who receive their bilingualism bonus.
How do you see the situation of languages in Guatemala?
In Guatemala there are currently 22 Mayan languages as well as Xinca and Garifuna, which makes for an eminently multilingual country, although the statistical data presented say otherwise. There is a higher Mayan population than ladino and with that the proportion of bilingualism is higher than monolingualism, which constitutes a great cultural wealth, but for the colonialist society it is very bad and threatens its interests in terms of political participation and representativeness from the indigenous peoples.
There are many laws and policies in favor of languages, they have been current laws but not positive, because there is no accompaniment or compliance. The State provides minimal resources to the entities that do bilingual education, on the other hand, the corruption that prevails in these same institutions does not allow progress.
We also see the case of the resistance of many teachers to do bilingual education, there is no interest, the authorities send monolingual teachers to purely rural communities, it is difficult for meaningful learning to exist without the language of the people.
What do you think are the main threats that accelerate the disappearance of mother tongues in Guatemala? Which ones are at risk of disappearing?
The most notable factor in language loss is migration, fathers or mothers away from home while in another country call their sons or daughters in another language.
Internal migrations, young people away from home for study or work, allowing alienation or transculturation and with this the loss of language.
There is a very notorious element that makes many choose not to use mother tongues, and that is dialect variants, in one language there are a lot of variants and this is uncomfortable to the point that it causes conflicts between the speakers themselves.
On the other hand, we have a monolingual generation in bilingual communities, children are not speaking in their mother tongue, contemporary fathers and/or mothers find it uninteresting to speak to their sons/daughters in the mother tongue, this is worrisome because the hope of languages should come from the family core.
Another threat would be the curricular change in the National Educational System, although many do not notice it, the grammatical teaching of the mother tongue is being gradually eliminated. There are methodological tools, but if there are no contents proposed in the NBC, teachers simply will not do bilingual education. THE SCHOOL BECOMES A THREAT, if there is no practice of it within the classroom we will soon have purely monolingual generations.
According to the Academy of Mayan Languages, five out of twenty-two indigenous languages are in danger of extinction: the Itza’ language could be the first to become extinct in the country, according to the Linguistic Atlas it has only 123 speakers, other languages are Mopan, Ch’orti ‘, Sipakapense and Tektiteko.
The vitality of languages is not in their recognition but in their practice and dissemination.
We understand that you recently participated in the Meeting of Digital Activists, convened by UNESCO in 2019, could you share your experience?
A few months ago the Digital Activism Meeting was held, it was motivating and gave us hopes to continue working in favor of the Mayan Languages.
In this meeting I noticed the tireless dream of building a true multilingual society, each participant brought proposals and projects that contribute to the rescue of languages.
On this day that marks the International Day of Mother Tongues, what would be your message to the readers of the magazine?
Language is the breath of communities, the fundamental pillar on which culture stands, those who know and speak their language know their world and their worldview. Language is the manifestation of people’s lives, greetings, dancing, customs and traditions emanate from the sounds, words and phrases of a language.
So, language is life and provides life, taking care of it, speaking it and spreading it is an urgent need, it must be rescued from the family to the school and outside of both.
On this day that marks the International Day of Mother Tongues, let’s not forget our duty to give life to the greatest legacy of all time, our language, speaking it does not represent a regression, rather it allows us to know a new world and the wealth inside it.
Currently we do not have a state that protects us, but we do have leaders who resist the loss of their language.