Opinion / Inequality

El Salvador Deals Major Blow to Nahuat Language Revitalization Efforts

Don Bosco University
Don Bosco University

Friday, February 17, 2023
Jorge Lemus

Leer en español

The new year is off to a bad start for Indigenous peoples and languages in El Salvador. The Ministry of Education has decided to disband the Cuna Náhuat revitalization program. In its place, as part of the recently passed Growing Together Law and an eponymous program promoted by the Office of First Lady, a new initiative called Nests of Linguistic Immersion will replace the cunas (cribs) in schools where those programs once operated.

Any initiative that promotes Pipil/Nahuat language education in El Salvador should be a cause for celebration, but these new “nests” are designed to absorb staff and children from the “cribs,” leaving them empty rather than working to emulate their methodology and pedagogy. This development, from its outset, marks a major setback for Nahuat language revitalization in El Salvador — a process that the government, by law, must uphold.

The Nests are ostensibly designed to continue efforts to promote the speaking of Nahuat, but they will not employ the same model developed and successfully implemented by the Cunas. The Cuna Nahuat is not the only model for linguistic revitalization, but it is the only one developed in this country and region to show positive results recognized by locals and foreigners alike.

My purpose here is not to criticize the Nests that are slated to be opened in El Salvador’s school system —programs that will serve a sector of the population long forgotten by the government— but to shed light on the fact that the Ministry of Education is closing the only program in the country that was successfully revitalizing Nahuat, prompting widespread surprise and frustration, especially among Indigenous teachers and parents.

The Nahuat language, also known as Pipil, is the last Indigenous language spoken in El Salvador, and, with less than a hundred native speakers, is at serious risk of extinction. Nahuat’s imminent disappearance as a living language would leave El Salvador with no remaining original languages.

This is the problem, and it is not unique to El Salvador: The case of Nahuat is repeated thousands of times around the world. More than three thousand natural languages, or 50 percent of all languages worldwide, face imminent extinction. In biological terms, this would be the equivalent of half of all animal species teetering on the verge of disappearing forever.

The group of Indigenous teachers, or nanzin tamatxtiani, in charge of teaching Nahuat as part of the Cunas Nahuat program. Photo courtesy of Don Bosco University.
The group of Indigenous teachers, or nanzin tamatxtiani, in charge of teaching Nahuat as part of the Cunas Nahuat program. Photo courtesy of Don Bosco University.

As a linguist, and as a Salvadoran, I have dedicated a large part of my professional life to the study, documentation, promotion, and revitalization of this Indigenous language, part of our national and global heritage. In 2010, in a bid to prevent the extinction of Nahuat under the auspices of Don Bosco University and with the sponsorship of the Ministry of Education, we launched the Cuna Nahuat program. Using a revitalization model I developed, it was designed to be an essential component in a long process of language revitalization. The Cuna started as a pilot program with the hope of proving that the model worked, so that it could be applied to other endangered languages.

The Cuna Nahuat is a language immersion center where Indigenous children between the ages of three and five develop play activities in Nahuat guided by native-speaking women who interact with them exclusively in their ancestral tongue. In other words, the medium of instruction and interaction in the Cunas is Nahuat. The children develop cognitive and psychomotor skills corresponding to their age and in preparation for their success in school.

The Indigenous teachers, or nanzin tamatxtiani, are women from Santo Domingo de Guzmán (Wizapan, in Nahuat), in the western department of Sonsonate, the last stronghold of Nahuat speakers in the country. These women never had access to formal education. The system excluded them, so they never learned to read and write. They grew up in poverty, carrying with them a heritage that they devalued, because it had been a source of discrimination and shame all their lives. That heritage is Nahuat, their mother tongue.

In 2010, four of these women agreed to participate as tamatxtiani (teachers) in the Cuna Nahuat in Wizapan. They underwent intensive training in early childhood education and language immersion. They went from working as housewives, potters, or farmers to being educators, radically transforming their status in the community. These women represent the beginning of a process of social transformation that profoundly altered the negative view that many in the villages harbored toward the native language and Indigenous people more broadly.

We started in 2010 with the single Cuna Nahuat pilot program in Wizapan. Then, with the support of several sponsors —among them, UNICEF and the Basque collective El Salvador Elkartasuna, which is currently our main collaborator— two more Cunas were launched in other municipalities. By 2022, there were three Cunas operating in western El Salvador —one in Wizapan, one in Santa Catarina Masahuat, and one in Nahuizalco— which together served over 100 children. Now, in 2023, as a result of the Ministry of Education’s intervention, none of these programs have been able to open their doors.

The Cuna Nahuat is a community program, and it was born through community support from parents, municipal leaders, and other local Indigenous people. For this reason, the Cunas are the patrimony of the communities where they operate. Each parent who sends their child to the Cuna, each child who attends a Cuna program, each Indigenous person in the community, each nanzin tamatxtiani, each mayor and municipal council member, each person in the community is an important participant in the revitalization. The Cuna Nahuat is not a Nahuat school, nor is it a daycare or “language nest” like the Maori’s te kohanga reo or the Pūnana Leo in Hawaii, the ikastola in the Basque Autonomous Community, or language immersion schools in Canada, though it has certain similarities. The Cuna is the motor that drives the recovery of Indigenous ethnic pride, enshrining the rights of Indigenous peoples —especially women— through the safeguarding and promotion of ancestral language and culture.

The closing of the Cunas violates Indigenous rights including the human right to be educated in our mother tongue. The Growing Together Law says as much in Article 59:

“Children and adolescents have the right to know, preserve, develop, and recover the spiritual, cultural, religious, linguistic, and any other element that allows them to define their cultural identity; for this purpose, the family, society, and state shall facilitate spaces that allow them to develop this right in all realms of life: family, school, community, municipality, and nation.”

Likewise, Article 54(f) of the law stipulates that it is the responsibility of the state to “promote knowledge of and respect for the Spanish language, sign language, languages of Indigenous peoples, cultural identity, and other forms of cultural expression.”

The Cuna Nahuat is a program that, since its genesis, has sought to fulfill these rights for the children of the communities in which it operates. Therefore, closing the Cunas is a violation of their rights, and the rights of all Indigenous communities in the country. All of us involved in the program will do everything in our power to see the Cunas, which should have resumed activities on February 6, 2023, open their doors as soon as possible, so that we can continue the process of revitalizing the Nahuat language in El Salvador.

*Jorge Lemus holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arizona. In 2010, he received El Salvador's Premio Nacional de Cultura for his efforts to revitalize Nahuat.

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