Most of the indigenous communities that inhabit Costa Rica continue facing a cultural threat: the loss of their unique, pre Columbian languages. Carlos Sánchez Avendaño, professor at the School of Philology, Linguistics and Literature (EFL) and researcher at the Institute of Linguistic Research (INIL) of the UCR, tells us all about this problem.
What’s Being Done
Among the state’s efforts to create a culture of respect and recognition of differences, Sanchez mentions the intention of the education system to include the language and culture of indigenous communities as part of the training curriculum Also there is greater awareness in the Judicial System about the importance of having indigenous interpreters in some legal processes and the fact that the Costa Rican Social Security Fund has some people in indigenous territories who know the language and culture of the communities very well to serve as cultural and linguistic mediators with patients. Although Sánchez acknowledges that this situation is much better than it was at the end of the 20th century, he considers that it is still insufficient.
On the other hand, the University of Costa Rica has been researching indigenous languages for more than 50 years. There are projects that document vocabulary, grammar and oral tradition of native peoples, both from the School of Philology, Linguistics and Literature and from the School of Anthropology. At the beginning, this work was characterized by following an academic line geared, above all, for specialists. Later, they began to work with and for indigenous communities.
Among other examples, Sánchez recalls that the UCR published a newspaper in Bribri at the end of the 1970s that was distributed in Talamanca in order to familiarize people with the writing and reading of their language. This effort went hand in hand with the creation of alphabets, teaching materials, and workshops for teachers.
One resource that has gained great strength is the creation of applications for smart phones. The apps have been widely accepted, especially among the children and youths of these communities. Among the apps, the pictographic dictionary of the traditional Bribri house and the alphabet of the Brorán language stand out. “We also created a computer game in Malecu. It was very interesting to see the children’s reaction because it was the first time that there was a game in their language and culture on the computer. This has an impact on the appreciation of one’s own identity ”, underlined the INIL researcher.
“What I would say has changed a lot in the last decade is that from the UCR we are putting in a great deal of effort into the creation of resources along with the communities. Using resources that are intended for the people of the community, resources that are not intended for other researchers. or for other academics. They are designed for children, youth and adults of the communities. So, they are much friendlier and have characteristics designed for the target user, not for technical purposes, but for real usage.
So, the resources are already designed with the people in the communities in mind and built with them. The model in which we are creators and they are only receivers is gone. Now, they are also creators in the process”
“Getting out of this microcosm is like when a Spanish-speaking family decides to send their children to study a different language abroad. This does not imply that students lose their native language or culture. Developing bilingualism and even educating yourself completely in another language does not have to go against maintaining the language of your ancestors or your family or the culture of your family ”, he pointed out.
Continuing with the comparison established by Sánchez, when a person who speaks Spanish decides to learn another language, he sees it as a process of addition. Your intention is not to forget your mother tongue. However, in Costa Rican indigenous communities, learning Spanish has meant the loss of the ancestral language.
“That is what we would have to change because it is not a process of loss, but of addition. It is very unrealistic to propose that we return to situations of the past of monolingualism or where Spanish does not have a relevance in the communities or outside the communities that need to educate themselves or to have access to health. That is materially unreal or very difficult to achieve. But, we can create a system in which they acquire a very good level of Spanish so that they can handle themselves with ease wherever they are and also maintain a very good level in their languages and cultures.
That should be our goal, much more realistic and even more fair in relation to the situation in which they live, where it is not only a matter of learning Spanish, but also English. It would be to aim for a trilingualism modality, to read, for tourism, to have access to travel or to go to universities abroad.
In this sense, the UCR is also contributing to the reinforcement of Spanish and other subjects among the indigenous population that is in the fourth and fifth year of secondary school in order to improve their academic performance and enter university in conditions similar to those of from other students.
“We must take this much more seriously, because one of the factors that leads parents to cut off the transmission of their indigenous language to their children has to do with the fact that they believe that they will not speak Spanish well and that is necessary in order to be successful academically in school.
At school and at university they have to speak Spanish well, and they blame this lower level of Spanish on the indigenous language. This is where a terrible association occurs, because I have to abandon my indigenous language so that my son learns in Spanish, so that he can pass his subjects well at school, college and university. We have to reverse that. It is not the fault of the indigenous language that they speak the Spanish they speak. What we have to have are excellent indigenous language classes and excellent Spanish classes, so that they stop blaming the indigenous language for Spanish ”, he stated.
Tourism: Linguistic Friend or Foe
The UCR is also contributing to the reinforcement of Spanish and other subjects among the indigenous population that is in the fourth and fifth year of secondary school. Tge purpose is to improve their academic performance so they enter university in conditions similar to those of from other students.
“We must take this much more seriously, because one of the factors that leads parents to cut off the transmission of the language to their children has to do with the fact that they believe that they do not speak Spanish well and that in order to be successful academically in school At school and at university they have to speak Spanish well, and they blame this lower level of Spanish on speaking the indigenous language. This is where a terrible association occurs, because I have to leave the indigenous language so that my son learns in Spanish, so that he can pass his subjects well at school, college and university. We have to reverse that. It is not the fault of the indigenous language that they speak the Spanish they speak. What we have to have are excellent indigenous language classes and excellent Spanish classes, so that they stop blaming the indigenous language for Spanish ”, he stated.
“If they had a good level of English, Spanish and Bribri, for example, we would no longer have languages in competition. But, we would have to achieve that. Many people question the teaching of English, but that is the reality of the world we live in. The important thing is to see English not as a competence of the Bribri, but as a new language that this child is going to add”, highlighted the researcher.
What Can the Non-Indigenous Population Do?
If the process of revitalizing indigenous languages must be focused on and directed by the same communities that speak them, there seems to be not much in which the rest of the population can help with. However, Sánchez mentions a contribution of capital importance: having a genuine interest.
According to his experience, the Malecu community has expressed its gratitude to the teams of students and researchers from the UCR who visit them because they perceive in them a genuine interest in their language and culture. For the specialist, this has a very positive impact on the self-revaluation process and on the reactions that this may generate.
“In the same way as in the past they have reacted to negative evaluations of theirs, now they are beginning to react to a positive evaluation of theirs. But, that is not generalized. If it were generalized it would be great. If they perceive that the majority of the Costa Rican population is interested in their cultures and languages, it would have a very noticeable impact ”, he pointed out.
For this genuine interest and appreciation for indigenous cultures to be generalized in the Costa Rican population, Sánchez considers that a substantial modification in the educational system is necessary, so that the concepts of multiculturalism and plurilingualism do not remain in the discourse, but rather become one. reality.