The Challenges of Teaching Indigenous Languages to Children

Foto de portada: Tomada de – créditos Jesús G. Pastor –

FROM THE EDITORS: The following article on indigenous language pedagogy and challenges was originally published in Entremundos, an organization in Guatemala that provides support and training workshops towards social initiatives. Their Revista sobre Derechos Humanos y Desarrollo (Human Rights and Development Magazine) is a print and online publication that provides an impressive work of community communications. Twenty years after the founding of Entremundos, they also just launched a podcast; we invite you to listen to it!

Foto de portada: Tomada de – créditos Jesús G. Pastor –
Foto de portada: Tomada de – créditos Jesús G. Pastor –

Speaking an indigenous language continues to be an obstacle when it comes to studying, working and fully developing oneself personally.  Indeed, it has caused our grandparents and parents enormous, deeply rooted guilt which goes back years.  In the past, phrases like, “Don’t speak your original language in front of anyone else because it will cause problems for you” or “you won’t have any work if you speak your indigenous language” were endless retorts.  These phrases became very significant, both for those making the statements and for those hearing them.

It’s not uncommon for some individuals to remember when they were small that their indigenous language was not taught to them.  Everything was taught and learned in the Spanish language.  Though currently this dynamic has changed.  Apparently to teach or to learn an indigenous language has become something of a novelty, fashionable among children and adults, all wanting to learn.

Focusing on correct teaching methods for children is fundamental.  It is a means of guaranteeing preservation of original languages.  Efforts have been made, e.g. creation of bilingual schools and opening workshops where indigenous languages are taught.  Nevertheless, these present a variety of limitations.  There are many I could mention, but on this occasion I would like to talk about the following:

Devaluation:  when an indigenous language is to be taught, its worldview ought to be included.  In spite of this, it’s often notable that there are teachers who do not allow children to reflect on what a word or phrase expresses in order for them to fully comprehend the meaning.  This means that the children begin to learn their indigenous language without understanding the feelings interwoven into the language which is what makes it a thing of beauty.  That presents the question: what could be done to make children value their indigenous language as part of their daily lives?

Linguistic variation:  Sometimes language instruction in a specific area doesn’t take into consideration the dialect to which the children are exposed.  And that oversight can cause confusion when children use their indigenous language.  In some cases, it’s noticeable in how words are combined in sentences, i.e. two or more dialects present in the same statement.

Familiarity with the language:  Occasionally, those teaching the language are faced with minimal language comprehension themselves, just like their students.   And because they don’t know the language fully, they only recognize a word or phrase here and there; hence, incapable of understanding what the child might say.  In such a situation what the teacher knows is what is passed on, be it less or more, without room for the child to reflect on what he/she is learning.*

Teaching materials:  In most cases workshop leaders or instructors ought to create their own teaching material in the dialect they are teaching because instructional materials, for example, official textbooks, only take into consideration one dialect.  Although this is part of the job, what happens when you must create teaching material without having the tools or knowledge needed to create something useful?

Practical application of language:  Another challenge to consider is how to create an atmosphere where the children can utilize native language.  Perhaps it can be spoken during the workshop or class.  But what happens when they leave the classroom?  How does one teach children indigenous languages within a context where the child experiences discrimination for being indigenous?

CoVid19 pandemic:  One of the greatest challenges for everyone, and in this case, for language instruction, is searching out the necessary tools to be able to write the language being taught.  A major difficulty is determining how to use programs which represent and/or demonstrate what is being taught.  Or simply, to be able to give advice in order to advance each child in writing and pronunciation.

The previous points describe some of the challenges in the instruction of indigenous languages.  They are situations where one ought to move forward, each day adding more advanced material, after taking into consideration each individual student.  Support from all and for the whole of the individual student in schools and/or workshops must be assured in order to eliminate anything obstructing quality learning experiences in indigenous languages.

Learning of indigenous languages should not only occur because they sound “beautiful”.  It is about much more than that.  The learning of a language is positive when done to preserve knowledge of what is passed on through language, to better know who we are, from where we come, and towards where we are heading.  Such learning should give us great satisfaction because, thanks to it, we can comprehend our culture, our ways of seeing and understanding the world.

* Author’s note:  I am referencing people who at specific times learned the language without being native speakers. And now they are teaching (at least that is what occurs in Mexico, e.g. in the inter-cultural universities) and in spite of having a certain degree of knowledge from having studied (vocabulary, grammar), they have no understanding of the worldview associated with the language.

Leidy Yareth González Romero

Leidy Yareth González Romero

Leidy Yareth González Romero es licenciada en Comunicación Intercultural de la Universidad Intercultural del Estado de México, y trabaja como profesional en formación intercultural en el Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones en la Ciudad de México.

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