Teaching Indigenous Languages of Latin America: an Ongoing Effort

By Ignacio Carvajal

Ignacio Carvajal is an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas. Professor Carvajal specializes in interdisciplinary research on Mesoamerican Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and pedagogical approaches to Indigenous Languages instruction, focusing primarily on Mayan languages from Guatemala, particularly K’iche’.

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Since 2017, an ever-growing cohort of language instructors has been working together to develop pedagogically sound approaches to teaching indigenous languages of Abya Yala. We were brought together by the Latin American Indigenous Studies Alliance (LAISA), a partnership between Latin American studies centers at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Utah.

A three-day workshop at Stanford University in March 2019 marked our third annual in-person gathering, followed by virtual meetings throughout the year to lend continuity and momentum to the work. Doctor Alice Miano, Lecturer in the Stanford Language Center, has worked with the instructors each year on curriculum design, and additional faculty and staff from Stanford and other universities have led discussions on topics from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)ACTFL standards for measuring language performance to technological resources that can be used in the classroom.

Similarly to other less-commonly-taught languages, indigenous language instruction comes with a set of complex challenges, particularly the development of teaching materials and online courses. Given the scarcity of readily available curriculum materials, most instructors of indigenous languages have created the materials that they employ in their teaching from scratch. In addition, while the demand for indigenous language instruction increases, there is often a need for distance teaching/learning. It is difficult, at the same time, for instructors to obtain non-contingent positions for indigenous language instruction. These factors, among others, further complicate the slow and arduous process of establishing meaningful indigenous language programs.

Nonetheless, this group is eager to face those challenges. Heeding feedback from the participants, the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at Stanford allocated more time in this year’s workshop for participation by the instructors themselves. Participants gave demonstrations of lessons they had conducted as well as materials they had created and employed. Additionally, we were able to discuss situations that related to indigenous languages in general and to our respective languages of instruction in particular, developing working groups of instructors working on the same language (namely K’iche’, Nahuatl, and Quechua) in order to share resources among the community. In the past and this year, native and non-native instructors have been present, representing languages ranging from Ayacucho, Aymara, K’iche’, Kichwa/Quichwa, Mixtec, Nahuatl, Quechua, and Zapotec.

This year, as a celebration of the Year of Indigenous Languages, I had the opportunity to work with CLAS to organize a poetry event in conjunction with the March workshop, titled “Poesía de Abya Yala / Poetry from Abya Yala,” in which participants and other invited guests were able to share poetry in their respective languages. Some of our readers included K’iche’ writer and scholar Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, Quechua poet and scholar Odi Gonzales, and Stanford CLAS’s own Perla Miranda, who shared poems in Zapotec by Felipe López Hernandez in front of her family from San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca.

The politics of teaching indigenous languages from U.S. universities are a complex issue, not without its contradictions and problematic aspects. The role that indigenous instructors are able to play is often one of temporary employment. The participation of instructors who are not native speakers or from the communities to which the languages belong - myself included - requires constant critical reflection. As a group of instructors from many different parts of the continent, our goal is to deal with these challenges head on and to prepare ourselves to teach indigenous languages in culturally responsible and pedagogically meaningful ways. Elvia Andía Grágeda, a Lecturer at The Ohio State University, has published four different level textbooks for Quechua instruction. Elvia has also recently become a Full Certified Tester for Quechua, making her the first certified evaluator of an indigenous language for ACTFL. Elvia’s work is an important contribution to international parameters of education and evaluation, and it also confronts pejorative stereotypes often levied against indigenous languages.

This year, members of California community organizations and translation groups were also invited to the annual workshop at Stanford. The cultural diversity of the languages and cultures of Abya Yala is vast. Personally it is encouraging for me to witness the potential that indigenous language instruction has in this part of the continent, especially under the current political climate. At this year’s workshop, it ranged from how to approach issues like immigration, which requires urgent pedagogical and logistic interventions, to the deliberate performance of poetry and storytelling in indigenous languages at a place like Stanford University.

Stanford CLAS invites all to read the testimonials of a number of these instructors on the importance of teaching indigenous languages of Latin America and the value of coming together as instructors to work collaboratively. Read testimonials here.

Upcoming LAISA workshops will occur this Friday, October 4, 2019 (virtual), and on March 5-7, 2020 (at Stanford University). Instructors of indigenous languages of Latin America who would like to join should visit https://clas.stanford.edu/educators/universities/indigenous-languages-workshop.