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21 February, 2017

Youngsters foresee an uncertain future for indigenous languages

The mother language is used for socializing in communities and as a weapon to confront discrimination in public space

Foto: Bruno Takahashi

47 languages out of 49 that are used in Peru are indigenous. However, due to mass migration from countryside to cities, discrimination and lack of opportunities to exercise full citizenship speaking an indigenous language, among other reasons, some parents prefer not to transmit their mother language to their children. In extreme cases, this linguistic conflict has led to a situation in which Spanish-speaking children can’t communicate with their monolingual grandparents that speak native languages. In addition to affecting family and community ties and accelerating resignation of one’s ethnic identity, the intergenerational transmission of ancestral knowledge and worldviews that are codified in these languages is being threatened.

Even though, at global level, the bilingualism and multilingualism are more common than monolingualism, in the Peruvian context, there is a lingering ideology that places the bilingual speaker of Spanish and an indigenous language in a position of inferiority. It is thought that indigenous languages are not compatible with speaking Spanish “correctly” or learning English or another foreign language, in other words, it is necessary to reject the indigenous language in order to learn another that has more social prestige.

In a study supported by CHIRAPAQ that was carried out in the city of Ayacucho in the Peruvian highlands, a group of indigenous bilingual youth was interviewed about the sociolinguistic reality and the use and the importance of Quechua language. In their commentaries, the youngsters represent the Quechua as a language that is more expressive and poetic than Spanish and they associate it with their family, communities and friends as well as the values attributed to these groups such as fraternity, collectivity, trust and nostalgia.

The study participants stated that they use Quechua more constantly in domains of familiar and intimate communication such as their communities, home and the indigenous organization. In the urban bilingual context, Quechua is used mainly to strengthen interpersonal ties and it is used in expressive, symbolic and identity practices such as greetings, insults, jokes and flirting. Even though the youngsters tell that Quechua is spoken sometimes in public domains such as university, work, civil society meetings and social networks, they point out constantly that in these spaces there are people that discriminate and others that don’t speak because they are ashamed of Quechua.

In what comes to linguistic vitality, even though Quechua has more than three million speakers in Peru, the youth foresee an uncertain future for this language. The pessimistic expectations are based on gradual hispanicization of Quechua, small number of speakers, linguistic discrimination, lack of identification with this language and evidence of decline in intergenerational transmission within the family. The youngsters refer constantly to some relatives and friends that don’t speak Quechua because they don’t want to or don’t know how.

On the other hand, the optimistic prospects are generally based on the persistence of the language despite 500 years of oppression. In spite of differences in prospects, they share a desire for revitalizing Quechua and they agree on that the responsibility to maintain and revitalize this language lies with the speakers themselves. When the youth were asked about if they would transmit Quechua to their children they expressed, on one hand, their preference for Quechua and, on the other, the necessity and the utility to transmit Spanish language.

Regarding the link between ethnic identity and native language, the study participants have very different positions. While some see the indigenous language proficiency as a necessary criterion required to identify oneself as indigenous, represent indigenous peoples legitimately and live fully in the indigenous culture, others prioritize identity characteristics that they “carry within oneself” and consider the indigenous language rather as a strategic tool to affirm one’s identity.

In effect, even though the urban indigenous youngsters don’t use Quechua constantly in their everyday lives, in the interviews, they express proudly that – due to different organizational processes related to identity affirmation – they have been able to overcome the shame associated with Quechua and, nowadays, they dare to speak it in public and, this way, challenge and confront the discrimination: “Now I do speak Quechua on the street and the people look at me and I feel even more proud instead of feeling ashamed”.

From CHIRAPAQ, under the International Mother Language Day, we appeal for building a world where the linguistic rights and linguistic diversity are respected and where no one is rejected because of using their mother language and expressing their cultural identity.