The decline of Nahuatl and the status of Mexican bilingual education

The Nahuatl language

The Aztec Empire fell to Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors in 1521, resulting in its strong decline and enslavement to Spanish rule. Although the conquest took place physically hundreds of years ago, it continues on a different front today – in modern Mexico, Spanish, the language of the conquerors of civilization, obliterates Nahuatl, once the language of the Aztecs. Although many English speakers may know little about Nahuatl, many use words every day that origin stem from there, for example, “chocolate”, “avocado” and “tomato” – an infinitely small example of the value that culture and language have brought to the world. Unfortunately, the language and identity of Nahuatl speakers are threatened by lasting and damaging discrimination on a human, linguistic and cultural level.

Decline of the Nahuatl

Although it is currently spoken by more than a million people in Mexico, Nahuatl is still very on the decline. Several factors have contributed to this decline, which has its roots in the colonization and oppression of Indigenous peoples. After 1821, following the Mexican Revolution, indigenous groups were minimized, seen as an obstacle to progress. The leaders wanted to form a Mexican identity that included at once European and Aztec roots, while denigrating indigenous peoples. The gap in education was already evident, with Mexican education following the principle of “direct instructionmeaning that regardless of mother tongue, school was taught in Spanish. For most of the 1900s, in an era known as the Indigenismo period, the main intention of bilingual education was not to preserve indigenous languages, or even to establish proficiency in Spanish without abandoning one’s mother tongue, but rather to assimilate indigenous peoples at the expense of their own languages ​​and cultures.

Over time, bilingual education in Mexico has seen some improvements. Some The factors in this improvement was the pressure of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a guerrilla organization for indigenous peoples, and the international community increasingly disapproves of assimilation. However, in modern Mexican society, indigenous peoples are still subject to prejudice and unequal opportunities that make it more difficult to preserve languages ​​like Nahuatl.

The challenges to transmit the language within Nahuatl-speaking communities have also contributed to its decline, continually leading to a decline in the number of speakers. Spelling is not always standardized, literature in the language is difficult to find, and the resources that do exist are often intended to facilitate and promote the switch to Spanish, rather than to protect Nahuatl.

The challenges of bilingual education

Bilingual education in Nahuatl faces several challenges, which may also contribute to the decline of the language. First, beliefs in the superiority of the Spanish language and culture stemming from a long history of discrimination can undermine the desire to spread or even simply maintain the language. An example is to diminish Nahuatl by calling it a “dialectinstead of a full-fledged language. In reality, viewing languages ​​as having a higher or lower status relative to each other has no language base. Spanish and Nahuatl are rather distinct and members of two completely separate language families, the Old Indo-European and the Second. Uto-Aztec. Additionally, to those who don’t speak Nahuatl, the language has features that may seem unfamiliar and complicated. For example, it is a agglutinative language, conveying a lot of meaning in a word by adding to that word; “I am a woman” it is “nicihuatlin Nahuatl. Since many Mexicans are mestizo or mestizo, speaking an indigenous language is often used as discriminatory factor; this distinction based on language is purely societal and is not supported linguistically.

Further, in some cases, Indigenous peoples may not even want to participate in bilingual education, again often because of the negative associations that society has placed on Indigenous languages. Education has often been based on the idea that students are restrained by their mother tongue and way of life, adding to this perception. Maintaining indigenous languages ​​may also not seem helpful to community members; as the majority language of Mexico, Spanish is the most convenient language for work.

Other challenges include finding a way to avoid possible adverse effects on the indigenous communities in question, while ensuring sufficient education. A study from a school in Brazil teaching in the indigenous language, Tapirape, as well as the majority language, Portuguese, highlights some of these potential problems, which are universal to bilingual education in indigenous communities. For example, students might find themselves less connected and involved in their culture because of time spent in school. Moreover, Portuguese words began to be more and more interspersed in Tapirape’s speech, raising fears that the school is further endangering the language. Of course, similar fears exist outside of educational situations: constant exposure to the Spanish language has also resulted in some evolution towards Nahuatl, both in vocabulary and structure, to sound more like Spanish. Although the changes resulting from language contact are natural – and in the case of Nahuatl it has impacted Spanish too but not to the same degree, this mixture of languages ​​can lead to resentment and a feeling of loss of identity, due to the respective status of each language in society.

Efforts in bilingual education and language preservation

Providing an education that incorporates Nahuatl to those who speak the language is absolutely crucial not only for general linguistic preservation, but also for the individual learner and each community. Education in indigenous communities needs drastic improvements; in 2010, the illiteracy rate among indigenous peoples was 27.2%compared to 5.4% in Mexico in general. Indigenous women have particularly high illiteracy rates, at about 40 percent, partly because it might be considered more necessary to educate men since they would be working. A significant factor in this disparity is the lack of availability of quality education in indigenous languages.

Initiatives have been put in place in Mexico to support indigenous languages ​​and improve education in indigenous communities. An example is the National Institute of Indigenous Languages ​​(INALI); created in 2003the organization seeks to lawyer for indigenous languages ​​and encourages the diversity of the many cultures in Mexico. One of his recent services is provide information on its website about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in several indigenous languages, including Nahuatl. However, government support is not always guaranteedand more widespread work remains to be done by targeting issues such as the improvement of teaching in indigenous languages, and the question of standardized tests requiring a good knowledge of Spanish, which can be exclusionary.

Another example is the Bilingual Literacy for Life/MEVyT (Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo) Indígena Bilingüe (BLLP/MIB). The goal of this initiative is to increase literacy in Spanish and indigenous languages, teach useful skills and encourage people to view their culture as valuable. The initiative suffers from lack of funds, and some potential students have no desire to enroll because Spanish is more useful for finding work. And regarding Nahuatl specifically, at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, students who speak it can participate directly in the preservation of their language, for example by helping make a dictionary of the language.

To advance

The greatest threat to Nahuatl today is not a material issue such as insufficient resources, nor can the solution be found in the expansion of a particular preservation effort. What poses the most danger to the Nahuatl language and the culture of those who speak it – what most compromises the most genuine and dedicated efforts in bilingual education – is the pervasive prejudice that seeks to entrench beliefs that the cultures and languages ​​of indigenous peoples are inferior, not worth maintaining or enjoying, but best replaced by the way of life of the majority. The rise, fall, and evolution of languages ​​is a constant theme in human history, but the decline of Nahuatl is far from a natural change. Rather, it is the slow destruction of a culture and history dating back hundreds of years, a forced loss. shaped by a history of colonialism and discrimination that endures today.

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