Many times when you are asked to describe your heritage it may not include language. In the United States we assume every person born here just speaks English because it is the nationally recognized language. We expect to walk into the grocery store and be able to carry on a conversation with the cashier or ask an individual for help. This is not the case everywhere. Many places such as Oaxaca, Mexico have more than one recognized native language. Many native Indians cannot expect to walk into town and have the cashier at the store speak the same language as them. The issue of language preservation is increasing extensively by the years. Language plays a hefty roll in culture, it has an extensive background, factors working against and for the preservation, and whether we like to acknowledge it or not plays a significant role within our government. Many of us do not realize how important something as simple as language really is.
In the world today there are currently between 6-10,000 different languages and this all depends on what is considered a dialect vs. a language (Vazquez). This does not include the unknown languages or the ones that are already lost. Oaxaca is a state of great linguistic diversity. There are 16 indigenous languages and 17 including Spanish that are recognized in Oaxaca (Vazquez). Those however are only the languages the government recognizes. The recognized indigenous languages of Oaxaca consist of; Náhuatl (the languages of 1 million speakers throughout central Mexico),Zapoteca (spoken by 400,000 people and has 5 regional dialects), Mixteca (320,000 speakers and 29 dialects throughout Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla), Mazateca (spoken by 150,000 people in Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla), Chinanteco (6 dialectal variants and 77,000 speakers), Mixe (70,000 speakers and 4 dialects), Amuzgo (spoken in Oaxaca and Guerrero by approximately 20,000 people), Chatino (20,000 speakers and 3 dialects), Zoque (spoken in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco by 20,000 speakers), Chicateco (14,000 speakers), Popolaca (has 12,000 speakers in Puebla and Oaxaca), Chontal (2 dialects and 10,000 speakers), Huave (10,000 speakers in southwest Oaxaca), Triqui (8,000 speakers throughout Oaxaca, Mexico City, Baja California, Sonora and the U.S), Chocho (3,000 speakers in Oaxaca), and Ixcateco (just 2,000 speakers in Oaxaca) (Languages used in Oaxaca, Mexico). As you can see there are a variety and dialects of indigenous languages in Oaxaca. There are many forces that work against the preservation of languages and even fewer forces that are working to preserve it. This creates a large issue for the indigenous peoples.
Language shift or language death can be sudden or gradual due to colonization and globalization (Vazquez). Schooling is not an option in Oaxaca it is required however, there are very few forces to ensure education is received. When Children from villages and small towns attend school, they are taught in the nationally recognized language of Spanish. Many children who many have learned their native language are then forced to learn another language. Their parents cannot speak any language other than the native language, leaving the children as translators with the rest of the world. In Oaxaca, approximately 10-15% do not speak Spanish, 70% are bilingual, and only 15% speak only Spanish (Vazquez). The American idea encourages being bilingual in Mexico and this can have a negative effect. The act of being able to communicate with persons outside of your family is done through Spanish, not Triqui or Mixe, etcetera. Globalization teaches people that their native language is useless, it has no value to the outside world, this concept gets into the villages where the elders quit teaching their native language in order to adapt to a new world. This concept not only is the idea of globalization, but the loss of experience.
Globalization goes as far as to include those migrants to American who came from small villages. Those migrants are individuals who have come for work however, they must adapt to American culture, a culture that frowns upon the different languages and it’s a culture that expects outsiders to adapt to it. These migrants spend a great deal of time in America to return with money to their villages taking with them learned American culture to teach, this then adapts into the small villages with endangered languages.
Another contributing factor to the loss of language is the outside world delegitimizing language. Many languages are unknown or unwritten. The unwritten languages are ignored as if they do not exist because they cannot be written. Many native speakers are not literate therefore the verbal form of language is their only form of communication; they have no need for written language. According to Dr. Vazquez unwritten languages are ignored but people continue to draw from languages they have delegitimized, add an accent, legitimize it and create a written word. This act not only begins to tell villagers, ‘your language does not exist’ but it then tells them that since we as higher people have changed this it can now be a written word however, it still gives no credit to the idea that it was a language to begin with.
The article “Vanishing Voices” refers to language as an identity, the ability of a person to represent himself. If people are no longer able to represent themselves, they are no longer able to communicate and they then begin to lose a part of their humanity. This is all part of the process of losing language. While there are factors working against the preservation of language, there are people who are working towards preserving it.
The first step in the preservation of language is to increase literacy. The more people can read and write the more they are going to want to read and write within their own language. The increase of literacy leads to documentation of the language not only in written form but in electronic form via computers; there are many different projects towards preserving these languages.
In 1987 the Oaxaca Native Literacy Project was founded by H. Russell Bernard and Jesus Salinas Pedraza (Foundation For Endgangerd Lanugages). The project began before its foundation, in 1971 Salinas and Bernard began working on a project to document the Nyahnyu culture in Nyahnyu. They developed a writing system for Nyahnyu and Salinas wrote four books about the culture of the people of the Mezquital Valley. In 1989 the books were published in English. In 1987, building on their book collaboration, Salinas and Bernard conceived of the Oaxaca Native Literacy Center — a place where Indian people from around the Americas could learn to read and write their own languages using microcomputers. Their idea was for Indians to write, print and publish their own works, in their own languages, on topics of their choice. They would write their own histories and record their knowledge for their children — and for all our children as well. The center began operation in 1989 with support from the National Bureau of Indian Education and the Center for Advanced Studies in Anthropology in Mexico; from the Interamerican Indian Institute and from the Jessie Ball Du Pont Foundation. Salinas runs the center, along with Josefa Gonzalez Ventura, a Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca. Together they train other Indians to use computers, to write and to print books in Indian languages. In 1993 the project incorporated as a not-for-profit organization called CELIAC — the Centro Editorial de Literatura Indigena, A.C. The A.C. stands for Association Civil, which means “not-for-for-profit corporation.” All five board members of CELIAC are native speakers of Mexican Indian languages. In January 1994, CELIAC moved into its own building in Oaxaca. The building houses up to 16 persons. There are toilet facilities for men and women, an ample kitchen, office space, meeting rooms, and computer work rooms. Indigenous authors spend time in residence at CELIAC and CELIAC is now a publishing house for indigenous literature, written in indigenous languages. CELIAC markets its books to scholars, libraries, and individuals. Proceeds from the sale of the books help keep the project going. Books are sold directly by CELIAC and all funds go directly to the project. So far, over 150 people — speakers of a dozen languages (Mixtec, Chinantec, Aymara, Quichua, and others) from countries across Latin America (Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador) — have spent from four weeks to six months in residence at CELIAC (Foundation For Endgangerd Lanugages).
The project is major in documenting languages electronically as well as increasing the ability of native speakers to become literate in their own language. According to Gasper Rivera, “To keep a language alive, writing it is fundamental,” (Mixtec Revival: Mexican Indigenous Language on the Rise).
Oaxaca also has a Mexican government-funded Academy of the Mixtec Language that teaches Mixtec speakers how to read and write their language. “Pérez Castro explains that a written script for Mixtec will help inhabitants from different villages communicate with one another, since the creation of a standardized vocabulary will smooth over linguistic variants in the rugged countryside where the language originated (Mixtec Revival: Mexican Indigenous Language on the Rise).” [“The practical benefits of a written language are obvious,” says Domínguez. “From public health messages to family correspondence, the writing of our language is a historical necessity.” (Mixtec Revival: Mexican Indigenous Language on the Rise)]. Although the project ignores the different dialects of the Mixtec language, it does help decrease the illiteracy rating of the population.
Language seems as though it would be strictly a cultural problem. Although it is a cultural problem, it is also a political issue. Many Politics are centralized around developing the culture as well as the language in which it is portrayed. The government is involved because it decides which languages are “recognized” languages. This creates a problem because the languages that are recognized receive more preservation efforts, where the languages that are not recognized are left to go extinct without a second thought by the government. Governments need to recognize all spoken languages and create efforts towards preserving them.
A look back to biblical times tells us that at one time there was only one language. While this may seem the ideal it is not the case today. Throughout the years we have relied on recorded history to teach us about our ancestors and about cultures of the past. Where there has been a lack of recorded history we have relied on artifacts. We use these artifacts as a way to tell us about the lives and cultures of the past. How much easier it would be to communicate history and preserve a culture if these artifacts were accompanied by the written word. Literacy is the primary culprit to lost languages. As literacy becomes far more widespread, so will language preservation. Education is the foundation on which language preservation will stand. To preserve a language there must be education and literacy. This not only leads to people having pride in their culture but will also create a gateway in which to study these cultures in the future. Cultures that have widespread literacy are far more likely to survive and be passed on from generation to generation. Foundations such as CELIAC have recognized this need and are addressing the challenges however, this is just one foundation. Many more will be needed to accomplish the literacy challenge on a wide scale. Although education and literacy cannot guarantee that all languages will be preserved, it will most certainly give the future generations a way to study those cultures and languages that are lost.