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CULTURE-ARGENTINA: Recuperating Indigenous Languages

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 21 2007 (IPS) - With the aim of strengthening linguistic diversity in Argentina, the University of Buenos Aires language school has launched a successful programme providing instruction in the country’s most widely-spoken indigenous languages.

The innovative plan is in keeping with the spirit of International Mother Language Day, celebrated Wednesday. Feb. 21 was adopted in November 1999 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the date to commemorate mother tongues as a means of unity, social cohesion and diversity.

“The idea was to add teaching and publicity facets to the economic, cultural, tourism or educational projects of non-governmental organisations and local communities, to help develop the regions where they are based,” Roberto Villarruel, director of the University Language Centre (CUI), told IPS.

The CUI was founded 15 years ago by the public University of Buenos Aires (UBA), which is almost 200 years old.

It initially offered instruction in English, French and Portuguese, but expanded its courses to include Italian, German, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew and Spanish for foreigners.

In 2006, the Department of Native Languages was added, which teaches Quechua, Guaraní and the Mapuche tongue.

Spanish is the only official language in Argentina at the national level. But more than 20 indigenous languages are also spoken in different parts of the country.

“The aim is to accompany regional integration processes in Latin America, contribute to raising awareness about and actively recuperating our linguistic and cultural patrimony, and revitalise native languages by making instruction in these tongues more accessible,” Mónica Thompson, in charge of the teaching programme, explained to IPS.

Thompson said that in 2006, the first year that courses in indigenous languages were offered, 120 students signed up – 60 for Quechua, 35 for Guaraní and the rest for the language of the Mapuche people. The courses are divided into three levels: beginning, intermediate and advanced.

“This year, we hope to increase the number of students, because we are going to offer a new level for each language,” said Thompson.

The Complementary Survey on Indigenous Peoples carried out by the National Institute on Statistics and Censuses in 2004 and 2005 found that nearly half a million of Argentina’s 39 million people belong to one of the country’s 31 indigenous groups. There is also a sizeable mestizo or mixed-race minority, although they do not generally identify with their indigenous roots.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Quechua was the language of the Tawantinsuyu Confederation (the Inca empire), which stretched from southern Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil’s Amazon region to northern Chile and Argentina.

Professor Carmelo Sardinas Ullpun, who coordinates the Quechua courses, estimates that 18 million people in South America speak the language. But he warned that it is fast losing ground to Spanish, and that in many extended indigenous families, not a single member speaks it anymore.

In Bolivia, Quechua is one of the official languages, along with Aymara and Spanish. In Paraguay, the two official languages are Spanish and Guaraní, which is spoken by 94 percent of the population.

In Argentina, there are several Quechua dialects. The most widely spoken is the dialect of the northwestern province of Santiago del Estero.

Guaraní is spoken in the northeastern Argentine provinces of Corrientes and Misiones, where it is an official language along with Spanish. Guaraní was prohibited by an 1870 decree that was not taken off the books until 1992.

Mapuzugun, the language of the Mapuche nation, is spoken in the region of Patagonia, in southern Argentina and Chile. The Mapuche are estimated to number 700,000 today, most of whom live in Chile.

“The indigenous languages that we started out with were chosen because they are the most widely spoken in Argentina,” said Thompson.

She pointed out that “although the dominant, official culture denied them until recently, they survived, although in unequal conditions, in the provinces.”

The students who have signed up for the indigenous language courses range in age from 20 to 60, and represent a variety of professions and trades. Several of them are university professors. “A minority came with the aim of not losing the language of their ancestors, but most are drawn by the values and philosophical principles of the indigenous cultures,” said Thompson.

The programme has four teachers, all of whom are members of the indigenous communities that speak the languages they are teaching.

They are now considering offering other native languages, like Toba, Wichí and Aymara.

The fees for the regular four-month courses vary: for students, the cost is 69 pesos (20 dollars); for UBA graduates or professors the cost is 79 pesos (25 dollars); and for everyone else the cost is 395 pesos (125 dollars), which can be paid in five instalments. The registration period for the next course is Mar 12-17.

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