I recently tagged along on Endless Oaxaca Multilingüe's trip to San Andrés Chicahuaxtla (Mexico) to visit an elementary school so high in the Sierra Madre mountains that you look down on the clouds. This region, known locally as La Mixteca, is one of Mexico's most linguistically diverse: more than half of the population speaks an indigenous language, mostly from the Otomanguean language family. To a linguist who studies these languages, the view beyond the elementary school gate is paradisal. The standard issue concrete walls are covered with colorful murals representing local flora, fauna, and radiant
Oaxaca is roughly the size of Portugal with the linguistic diversity of the entire European continent.
images of men, women, and children dressed in traditional red huipiles and straw hats. Many of the students wear matching huipiles over school uniforms, linking them to the beautiful artwork and many generations of their ancestors.
Huipil: a 'tunic'-style garment woven from cotton or wool traditionally worn by women in the regions of Mexico and Guatemala where indigenous cultures thrive. They are often decorated with intricate embroidery and many are identifiable to the community in which they were created.
A traveling library affectionately known to the children as "Triqui Bus" brings books in Spanish and Triqui. The Triqui books are self-published with software from StoryWeaver and written in an orthography systematized by Dr. Fidel Hernández a native-speaker linguist and alumnus of that very elementary school. Handcrafted Triqui literacy materials, labors of love, decorate classroom walls. The official language of instruction in all Mexican public schools is Spanish, but talented educators and language advocates find a way to support the Triqui language through literacy.
Triqui: an umbrella term referring to a group of languages belonging to the Mixtecan branch of the Otomanguean language family that are closely related and somewhat mutually intelligible (some speakers of different varieties can understand each other to some degree), but are different enough to be considered distinct languages. This post is about Chicahuaxtla Triqui (triqui alto); the other major varieties are Copala Triqui (triqui bajo) and Itunyoso Triqui.
In a community in which nearly every adult speaks Triqui as their native language, you might wonder why this elementary school would go to such lengths to promote Triqui language education, especially with only rudimentary materials and very little governmental support. School children all over the globe suffered learning losses during the pandemic, but nowhere is that more true than in agrarian communities with limited technology and connectivity. So again, you might wonder, why not use every minute of instructional time for recuperating basics like mathematics and Spanish literacy? There is no question that Spanish is essential for educational success and economic security. If parents view Spanish as the key to their children's future, why not promote monolingual Spanish education and Triqui at home? Why bilingual education in this case?
Two themes emerged from our visit: Chicahuaxtla's mayor, school administrators, teachers, and community language activists believe that Triqui-language education is in their student's best interests, and that the transmission of Triqui to future generations is in their community's best interests. The research supports them on both accounts.
In both post-colonial and migration contexts where children speak one language at home and another at school, children who receive a bilingual education achieve higher proficiency in both the minority and majority language than children who receive a monolingual education in the majority language (August and Shanahan 2010; Carpenter & Devonish 2010; Murtagh 1982; Siegel 1997; Simmons-McDonald 2010). In fact, children who have an educational foundation in their home language achieve better general academic outcomes than children who do not have that opportunity (Anderson, Anderson, & Sadiq 2016; Barac & Bialystok 2011; Bialystok 2001; Cummins 2000; Eisenchlas et al. 2013; Swain et al. 1990; Thomas & Collier, 1997).
Thus, if the educational research is to be believed then Triqui literacy and Triqui language education will benefit the children of Chicahuaxtla in terms of continued development of Triqui language skills, but also in terms of ultimate attainment of Spanish and more general academic success. The evidence supporting minority language education is so overwhelming that UNESCO recommends that all children first acquire literacy in their mother tongue.
Looking at the broader community context, only thirty years ago, nearly all children entering primary school in Chicahuaxtla were either monolingual or dominant Triqui speakers. Today many children are monolingual speakers of Spanish on their first day of school. Even Triqui proficiency among Triqui-Spanish bilinguals is noticeably lower than it was only a generation earlier (in terms of active vocabulary and speaking fluency). That's a significant change in a short period of time indicating that many Triqui-Spanish bilingual parents are choosing to speak Spanish (their second language) to their young children.
As a parent, I empathize a great deal with the parents of Chicahuaxtla who could speak Spanish to their children and choose not to, as well as those who raise their children in Spanish. They are all doing what they believe is best for their children. They have all experienced discrimination in the broader society for speaking an indigenous language, and they all live in a society where access to education, healthcare, and the legal system necessitates the use of Spanish. Still, there is something deeply tragic about a community that is built around multigenerational families where grandparents cannot have meaningful conversations with their grandchildren, because of an increasing language barrier. And the number one indicator of language vitality is intergenerational language transmission. Parents who are speaking Spanish to their children might even be surprised to learn that the language they hear all around them, that they use daily with their peers and their own parents, is in grave danger because their six-year-olds do not use it.
International language transmission: the most important consideration for evaluating a language's vitality is whether or not it is being transmitted from one generation to the next (Fishman 1991). In other words, a language is 'unsafe' when parents do not speak it to their children.
And what happens when a language is lost? Going into that question in any detail would mean ending one post by beginning another, but language is a core part of who we are as individuals as well as who we are in community with others. Language is a way of life: it is a vessel for centuries of specialized knowledge of culture, history, and the natural environment. Every linguistic system is an irreplaceable instantiation of the miracle that is human cognition. I say miracle when I mean biology, because we still understand so little about the human capacity for language that it feels miraculous. Yet, sadly, the Language Conservancy estimates that every forty days a different human language is spoken for the last time.
Languages embody the intellectual wealth of people that speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre. ~Ken Hale
I believe that embracing bilingualism is the only way to ensure the future of Triqui and probably all of Mexico's indigenous languages; and so the educators of Chicahuaxtla are heroes in my view. As field linguists we tend to idealize the oldest generation of speakers who are most likely to be monolingual, uncorrupted by colonial languages. They are also likely to have the most expansive vocabularies and sharpest intuitions. But I am deeply moved by the reality of the bilingual speakers living in their traditional communities as well as those living in diaspora contexts. These are the people who will decide whether to carry their language forward. This potentially life-altering decision, that could also change the course of history, must be made in community because maintaining a language requires collective will. And this decision will need to be made over and over again, because Spanish (like English, Mandarin, Indonesian, etc.) isn't going away. And the Chicahuaxtla Triqui community alone (like countless other communities around the world) must figure out how to keep transmitting their language, because the financial support they receive to print literacy materials pales in comparison to the economic pressure to shift to Spanish. The national pride in ancient societies does not translate into the political will to preserve the life style of their modern descendants. I assume some people feel the pressure and others do not, but it is enormous.
As Dr. Fidel Hernández reminded me, it's not too late for Chicahuaxtla Triqui; the parent generation still uses it daily, and so the tide could turn. But what is very clear is that if Triqui is going to have a future, bilingualism must be embraced as a sustainable way of life, and not viewed as a vehicle for assimilation into Spanish-speaking society.