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CHILE: Keeping Indigenous Languages Alive

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 1 2008 (IPS) - “Mari, mari!” shout the excited group of 20 Chilean, Peruvian and Ecuadorean three- and four-year-olds, using the Mapuche language greeting to welcome a visitor to their intercultural day care centre in Santiago.

Some of the pupils at the Adkintun preschool are descendents of the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile, while others belong to the Aymara ethnic group, native to the Andean highlands of Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile. In the past there have also been children descended from the Rapa Nui, the native Polynesian people of Easter Island.

But the majority of the 60 children enrolled at the day care centre do not belong to any indigenous ethnic group, which makes it genuinely intercultural, said Jorge Clavería of the Coordinadora Nacional Indianista (CONACIN), the non-profit indigenous network that founded the centre in 2005.

Adkintun is funded by the Chilean government’s National Day Care Centre Board, which has opened another five intercultural preschools this year as part of President Michelle Bachelet’s policy for indigenous peoples. By January 2009 there will be a total of 30 centres across Chile. The government-run National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) provides them with technical support.

The children who attend the pioneering Adkintun preschool are too young to learn to read and write, but they know the names of the sun, moon and stars and the members of a family in the languages of the Aymara, Mapuche (known as Mapuzugun) and Rapa Nui peoples. They also sing a song that begins with the words “Mari mari, pichi keche” (“Hello hello, little children”).

Although they will not leave the day care centre actually speaking these languages, they will at least know that there are other peoples and cultures with different ways of looking at the world, and can continue to learn more about them in the future, teacher Fabiola Briones Huenullán, a Mapuche Indian, told IPS.

Briones Huenullán is a perfect example of the centuries of silence imposed on the indigenous languages of Chile and many other parts of South America, after the newly independent republics founded in the 19th century prohibited them in the name of cultural homogeneity.

“I have been learning the Mapuzugun language with my students,” she admitted. Some of her relatives, who live in southern Chile, speak the language on a daily basis. But her parents, who moved to Santiago, chose to teach her only Spanish, believing it would help her get further ahead in society. Her mother only remembers a few words of their native tongue.


There are nine indigenous ethnic groups legally recognised by the Chilean government, and a total of 1,060,786 indigenous people living in the country today, accounting for 6.6 percent of the total population. The largest ethnic group is that of the Mapuche, who number over 900,000, followed by the Aymara, with slightly more than 80,000 members. The rest of the population is made up of a small white elite and a large majority of mestizos, or people of mixed-race ancestry.

The languages of the Atacameño, Colla, Diaguita and Yagán indigenous peoples are considered extinct. The Kaweshkar language, with 15 surviving speakers, is on the verge of extinction. Only Aymara, Quechua, Mapuzugun and Rapa Nui are considered “living” languages.

Statistics from 2006 show that the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, located in the Pacific Ocean 3,700 kilometres from mainland Chile, have most effectively preserved their native language: 81.3 percent of the members of this ethnic group report that they can speak or understand it. The same is true for 74.4 percent of Quechua people in Chile, 27.4 percent of Aymara Indians, and 22.8 percent of the Mapuche. Knowledge of these languages is most prevalent among the older generations.

In 1996 the Chilean government created the Bilingual Intercultural Education Programme (PEIB), overseen by the Ministry of Education. Today the programme provides curriculum and teaching support to 274 primary and secondary schools in seven regions with large proportions of indigenous inhabitants.

However, there has always been a certain amount of controversy around this initiative, largely due to accusations of insufficient teacher training, a lack of teaching methodologies, the less than full commitment shown by some of the schools involved, and the resistance raised by some indigenous families. There has also been criticism of the lack of research and specialised courses geared to this area in Chilean universities.


For the last three years the Chilean government has been working on an ambitious project: the incorporation of indigenous languages in the standard curriculum for the country’s primary schools. As of 2010, an indigenous language module will be included within the subject of Language and Communication, alongside the teaching of Spanish and foreign languages like English.

The basic objectives and minimum content for the module were approved in 2006, and a group of universities and indigenous organisations are currently working on systemising all of the knowledge that is part of the oral traditions of the country’s native peoples, PEIB assistant coordinator Claudio Millacura told IPS.

“One of the most frequently voiced demands of indigenous organisations is for educational institutions to teach native languages. As of 2010, it will be mandatory for schools to offer the module on indigenous languages as part of the curriculum, but taking the classes will be voluntary and depend on whether families request it,” explained Millacura, who is of Mapuche descent.

Another major initiative, being undertaken by CONADI, is the creation of academies for teaching indigenous languages, which will operate in accordance with the composition of each ethnic group. To pave the way towards this goal, linguistic committees were established for the Aymara, Quechua and Mapuzugun languages. The Rapa Nui people decided to immediately establish the academy for their language in July 2005.

On Sept. 6, the Aymara academy will open in the town of Alto Hospicio, in the northern Chilean region of Tarapacá. The Mapuzugun academy is scheduled to open in November, although the exact date and location have yet to be determined. The Quechua academy is slated to begin operating in 2009.

The creation of these institutions has involved formidable challenges, stressed Necul Painemal, the director of CONADI’s Programme for the Recovery and Revival of Indigenous Languages. Painemal, a Mapuche Indian, told IPS that the first challenge is the establishment of a legal formula to ensure that they have sufficient autonomy to “develop linguistic policies and plan their implementation.”

Those responsible for the initiative have had to address the status as well as the corpus of the languages, he added. It has been suggested, for instance, that indigenous languages be designated the official languages of towns with large indigenous populations.

It has also been necessary to review the existing alphabets or writing conventions for the different languages and identify different geographical variations in order to agree upon a common standard. This is of particular importance for the Mapuche people, since there is no single recognised authority for the Mapuzugun language.

Another crucial aspect is the way in which the academies will coordinate their efforts with the Ministry of Education and the standard school curriculum. Defining functions and working in close cooperation will be essential to avoiding the duplication of efforts and the subsequent waste of time and resources.

It is also unclear how this process will fit into the major reforms being discussed in the country today. Bachelet has already announced the creation of an Indigenous Undersecretariat within the Ministry of Planning, which could replace CONADI, while a controversial general education bill is currently being debated in the Chilean Congress.

In addition, who will teach the languages? In the bilingual intercultural schools currently operating, this job is handled by “traditional educators” chosen by the community itself. Beginning in 2010, the work of these teachers will be complemented by university-trained teachers, Millacura explained.

Funding is also a question. “The resources provided by the government to CONADI for this work are very limited. We are working with the same budget as in 2006 and our work has doubled,” Painemal reported.

In the process of reviving languages that express the world views and identities of indigenous peoples, the communities themselves have a key role to play. This has been demonstrated by the recovery of some of the basic elements of the extinct Atacameño language Cunsa, commented Roberto Lehnert, a researcher from the University of Antofagasta in northern Chile.

It was the determination of the communities of San Pedro de Atacama to preserve their culture that made it possible for the university to develop a series of text books used in the region’s schools since 1997. Some 500 students in grades one through five now use the Licana text books created as part of this bilingual intercultural education project.

Specialists also stress that any educational policy should be accompanied by social initiatives to encourage the use of indigenous languages, particularly in the media, through newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

On Sept. 12, CONADI will launch a television news show in the Mapuzugun language, which will be broadcast Saturday nights at 10 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. on Channel 2, a community television network based in Temuco in the southern Araucanía region. The newscasts can also be seen online at

For Painemal, the language issue is part of something much more wide-reaching. “If societies do not deal with the indigenous question in all of its aspects – social, economic, political, cultural and linguistic – they will face serious problems, because younger generations are aware of their rights as members of a culture,” he stressed.

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