Revitalising ancestral language through bilingual Intercultural education
Plurinational state of Bolivia: Lomerio indigenous territory - Revitalising ancestral language through bilingual Intercultural education in Lomerío, Bolivia
by Damián Andrada | ORE-IWGIA researcher, master’s in political science and sociology
With the support of CEJIS Bolivia, the “Indigenous Navigator” project and financial support from the European Union, the Monkox nation is recovering the Bésiro language after 50 years of imposed Spanish. In Palmira community, 39 young children under the age of 16 are studying the language of their forefathers alongside teachers and elders.
Lomerío Indigenous Territory is facing the dry-season drought. Along the road, you can see the Chiquitano dry forest, the traces of frost and the scars of the fires that hit the Plurinational State of Bolivia from August to October of this year. A lack of clean drinking water is the main problem facing these 20 communities. For decades, however, the Monkox people have been facing the loss of their native language and now, in the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”, they have decided to do something about it.
Home to 70 families and 380 inhabitants, Palmira is one of the largest communities in Lomerío. In the last few years, its school, the “Pedro Pablo Peña García” educational centre, realised that there was no clear policy on implementing bilingual intercultural education in the territory and so decided to embark on a project to revive the Bésiro language: they are now studying the language everyday alongside Spanish.
The school’s students smile at the camera from the football pitch stands. The boys are wearing light blue shirts and the girls are noteworthy in their traditionally embroidered dresses. They sing the cassava song as a round in Bésiro. The school authorities understand that reviving their language “is a way of regaining their culture” because it forms part of their identity.
The Bésiro classes began in July when the support materials arrived. Pedro Peña Choré has been a teacher for 22 years but he had to learn how to teach the language, applying educational techniques he was already familiar with.
– I think it’s really innovative to be teaching the language of my forefathers because there are things that just can’t be translated. I have spoken the language since I was little and I continue to do so. When I was a boy, I had bilingual teachers and my parents also spoke Bésiro. But, over time, Spanish became imposed – recounts Pedro, a little embarrassed to be posing for the camera.
As with any new language, the first thing the teachers do is teach the children the basics: greetings, household objects, the names of domestic animals etc., so that they become familiar with the words and, after that, they can gradually move on to form sentences.
– The kids find it quite complicated because they are used to Spanish, but Bésiro is no more difficult than Spanish. There are some terms that it is impossible translate. I think you just have to consider them in parallel as complements to each other.
Asunción Charupá Peña smiles together with three of her children, telling me she also has two more. Unlike the teacher, she does not think the children find the language difficult to learn but says she does speak “a little”.
– Learning Bésiro helps us because we are returning to our ancestors and our grandparents. For our children, our grandchildren, this is very good. We are glad that our language is not going to die. I am proud to keep speaking it.
Asunción explains that her parents did not speak Bésiro with her but that she learned it from her grandparents. This is why she can understand it but not speak it:
“I am learning with my children. It’s not so difficult for them to learn, we are encouraging them so that they don’t find it too hard at school.”
Palmira’s leader, Mariano Chore Oliz, is unable to conceal his joy. Bésiro was dying out and so the “Indigenous Navigator” project is teaching toddlers through to primary level, with the support of teachers and elders. The leader tells us how the programme is reaching 39 primary school pupils and eight children under the age of four through the “bilingual nest” programme. He knows full well what the imposition of Spanish during the second half of the 20th century meant for his community.
– When I went to school at five, the teachers came from the city and couldn’t speak a word of Bésiro. And we didn’t know Spanish. What did they do? They banned us from speaking Bésiro and forced us to speak Spanish. If we were unable to, they’d beat us until we did. And so we stopped speaking our language for 50 years. Thanks to this initiative of the Lomerío Native Communities’ Indigenous Organisation and the Indigenous Navigator project, we are now recovering our language. This is something we really want to do.
Among the stories that are told in Palmira, many people like to talk about the “linguistic nest”. The youngest children, those not yet old enough to go to school, go to Don Marcelino Peña Sumami’s house every day to learn Bésiro: there, they cook, clean and play using Bésiro words. The programme is thus forging links between and across the different generations and the elders are very proud of the work they are doing.
– We older people speak the language but we are worried about the children - explains Don Marcelino, offering us a drink of chicha to quell the heat of the day – I’d love to know if we are doing a good job.
Language is important for a culture: it forms part of a people’s identity, it preserves their cultural history, it transmits ancestral knowledge and it safeguards the people’s memory. The Monkox community are well aware of this. That is why, in the coming years, you will no longer have to be “old” to be able to speak Bésiro.
The project is funded by European Commission - Development & Cooperation - EuropeAid, channelled by International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), executed by Centro de Estudios Jurídicos e Investigación Social - CEJIS, through #CICOL under the Indigenous Navigator Initiative.