The complex reality of indigenous languages in Argentina

Social scientists share their cultural studies and experience in relation to indigenous peoples’ languages.

Cancha (football pitch), poncho, gaucho, morocho (dark-skinned person), carpa (tent), vincha (hairband), pucho (cigarette)… a great number of words of Argentinians’ everyday speech comes from Quechua, an Incan language that has been in contact with Spanish for five hundred years. Quechua –and its dialects–is a native language with great vitality in many parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador. However, it is not the only one: at least fourteen indigenous languages are spoken in Argentina nowadays, while there used to be more than thirty five before the Spanish conquerors arrived. What do we know about them? Why is it important to value and take care of them?

“In our country, there are 39 indigenous groups –mbyá-guaraní, mocoví, pilagá, toba-qom, wichí, huarpe, among others–, many of which are numerous, others are smaller. According to the last population census (INDEC, 2010), out of the 40 million inhabitants, 2.4% declared to be indigenous, that is, more than 950 thousand people,” explain Ana Carolina Hecht, Noelia Enriz and Mariana García Palacios who are anthropologists and Conicet researchers.

Carolina studies the linguistic socialization, displacement and vitality of the Toba language in different contexts (familiar and educational) in urban Qom communities of Buenos Aires province and Chaco; Noelia works with mbyá-guarani communities in Misiones searching for the various types of knowledge that move around, both inside and outside, intercultural bilingual schools. And Mariana analyzes how children from Qom neighbourhoods, also in Buenos Aires and Chaco, build their knowledge of the social world, especially of the religious kind. Together they share the project “Interculturalism and education in toba/qom and mbyá-guaraní communities of Argentina: a historical-ethnographic approach to the ethnic and linguistic diversity in schools”, which belongs to the Program for Anthropology and Education of the University of Buenos Aires.

Their research has allowed them to cohabitate with those communities during field work. “I lived with the communities I was working with for some time.  We also do participant observation: we get involved in the communities’ activities,” tells Noelia.  Carolina adds: “For example, we give workshops about different topics such as interculturality, indigenous childhood, languages in contact, diversity, and inclusion in intercultural bilingual schools”.


Indigenous languages and territory  

According to the scientists, the Argentine indigenous languages are those that come from language families present in our country’s boundaries. At the same time, there are other languages spoken in Argentina that were brought by immigrants from neighbouring countries. “Indigenous peoples are always more numerous than native languages, because many communities have stopped speaking their own languages due to long historical processes of marginalization, discrimination, subjugation, among other factors,” notes Hecht.

Nowadays, the range of situations is highly diverse. There are languages which are no longer spoken, others that only have one person who can recall them, and there are also bilingual situations. Spanish may be predominant in some bilingual communities but, in others, the native language is so vital that is being used as the main language. “These situations may even be present within the same community: there are some Qom children who speak Spanish as their first language, and some that speak Qom as their first language,” adds Mariana.

Mbyá communities are a very special case. They have their own language, but live in three different countries at the same time, in the province of Misiones (Argentina) and in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. The oral language functions as a lingua franca allowing its speakers to communicate in the three nations. But its written form changes accordingly. “In Brazil, it’s influenced by Portuguese; in Paraguay, by standard Guarani and here, by Castilian Spanish, –tells Noelia– For example, the ‘ch’ sound for us (pronounced /tʃ/), it is written with ‘x’ in Brazil. This shows the complexity of the indigenous languages’ situation”.


The great challenge for school

All this complex scenario represents a great challenge for the Intercultural Bilingual Education (EIB, for its acronym in Spanish), a modality of the education system that guarantees constitutional rights to indigenous peoples.  Captured in the National Education Law nº 26 206 (chapter XI, article 52), the EIB promotes a mutually enriching dialogue of knowledge and values among indigenous peoples and communities that are ethnically, linguistically and culturally different, and the respect for such differences.

Nonetheless, the scientists perceive that these dissimilar situations of the indigenous languages are not always taken into consideration in education policies.  “EIB legislation is oriented to indigenous children who live in rural areas, speak their native language, and have little contact with Spanish, while the most general situation shows indigenous children in urban areas with different competence levels of the indigenous language,” says Carolina.

For the social scientists, an ideal situation would be to have legislation contemplating diverse realities and social nuances. “The Intercultural Bilingual Education is a challenge that we should all be part of: It should be an education system for the whole Argentine society, and not only for ethnically marked peoples. By doing so, Argentina could finally account for its multicultural heritage. We should also think on interventions where the communities could get involved, not just interventions from outside.”


Acknowledging history to look towards the future

“The fact that many indigenous peoples are not speaking their language at present does not mean that they are less indigenous,” lays out Carolina. “Certain historical processes have conditioned today’s multiple situations. If we only examine the situation from a present perspective, we may tend to analyze it in a hierarchy, taking into consideration only present conditions, leaving behind other processes that resulted in nowadays situations.  The relationship between language and identity is always very complex, because many people are seen as less indigenous as they don’t speak the native language, even at school”. Mariana adds: “Language is very important for people’s identification, but not the only defining feature”.

Noelia wonders: “Why shouldn’t we keep the cultural richness of a country? Why deny it? Why should we, as society, ask people to be something they are not? Diversity is part of Argentina’s heritage. There’s nothing to make us think that infringing upon diversity is not pernicious for society as a whole. Also, in this case, diversity has to do with the origins of the land where our country functions today, and these indigenous peoples were present before nation-states”.

In order to take care and protect linguistic varieties, “there should be, in the first place, a linguistic plan of action and education policies based on the great complexity of today’s scenario,” they sum up. “It would be interesting to foster opportunities for reflection and discussion about these issues, so as to start disarming ideas that are strongly crystallized in the generalized common sense. And, finally, to boost legislation on Intercultural Bilingual Education so it can be more than a utopia, and can translate into concrete actions throughout the whole country”.


By Jorgelina Martínez Grau