The weekly column
Article 71, August 2001
BILINGUALISM (Diversity vs uniformity)
Survival of an Endangered Vernacular in a Bilingual Minority Group
By Michel Torino
This reflection will bring together the problem of bilingual minority groups and the 'rebirth' of an endangered vernacular language, namely Chorote, in the north of Salta, Argentina.
Languages are instruments of power and as such are imposed by the dominant group upon the minorities. The effect of such action is the shrinking or extinction of the vernacular spoken by the minority groups. The magnitude of the loss, in case of extinction, can only be grasped when it is realized that 'a language, like a species, when extinct...never reappears' (Pinker, 1995). The idea is not new, in fact it is Darwin's, but it was further developed only during the last decades or so.
Generally speaking, conflict between languages is almost inevitable due to the fact that 'normal everyday life is now carried out in multicultural worlds' (Agar, 1991). Furthermore, monolingual speech communities are extremely rare (Spolsky, 1998); the exceptions being, according to Illich, highly improbable neolithic tribes and, less so, communities that have been discriminated in exceptionally harsh ways or that have voluntarily isolated themselves from the surrounding culture/s. (The term 'culture' is a loose one and has beeen defined in many different forms. It is used here, loosely perhaps, as that what is common to a group of people, the invisible links that unite some individuals defferentiating them from other groups). Now, how does the conflict begin? It starts as the result, in modern times, of economic domination of one country over others and of the displacement of large numbers of people from one territory to another. This movement occurs either within the law (immigration favoured by state policies) or against it (migration fought by the governments) (Eco, 1998). However, there is still an older reason for language contact: conquests. The latter applies to the contact between Chorote and Spanish.
At the beginning, Chorote, as so many other indigenous languages, was used and learnt by the conquerors -the dominant culture- for purely practical reasons; they needed guides into the new territories as well as information about them, and they had to preach. Once the conquest was finished, the vernacular became useless and, what is more, it became a menace. We have already mentioned that language is power, it gives the group its identity, it lends cohesion to the vernacular culture and strengthens bonds among the community members. It should be pointed out, before going any further, that 'language' and 'culture' are indissolubly bonded concepts (disquieting implications can be derived from this view!). Then, was there a planned political action against the many indigenous languages in Argentina or were they gradually weakened by the imposition of Spanish -the 'new mother tongue'? The latter is probably truer. Although the Constitution does not establish Spanish as the official language, thus 'promoting unilingualism through legislation' as it happened in France (Bourhis,1982), Spanish has always been additive because it is the language taught and used by the State -a fact that facilitated its preeminence over all the vernaculars. Another reason for the fast weakening of Chorote was that, according to Ferguson's classification, it was W0, (not utilized in writing) (Haugen,1966), because it lacked a written alphabet. This of course, made it look less 'useful' and 'respectable' in the eyes of the new dominant group and, consequently, in those of the younger generations. Young speakers tend to show less 'language loyalty' (Spolsky, 1998) as a result of migration in search of better opportunities and deculturation, that is the failure to fully identify with either culture . However, most of the community feel that, although Spanish has 'overwhelming advantages' it 'symbolize(s)... oppression and convey(s) an alien culture' (Haugen,1966); and that is the great paradox of deculturation 'I want to be part of what I resent'. It must be borne in mind that the once large indigenous communities were brutally reduced as a result of the conquest , their land was confiscated and afterwards they were totally forgotten by the successive administrations. The outcome, impoverished groups systematically discriminated and exploited , and underrated, in cultural terms, by the dominant group.
Chorote seemed thus doomed to extinction that would result , of course, in the extinction of the group's culture. However, a new 'development' of the language reversed the seemingly inevitable fate. An Anglican missionary, Mr. Drayson, a linguist and a translator, devoted himself to the task of giving Chorote a written code.
The arduous task- elaboration of a phonetic system prior to transferring the oral language to writing- was started in 1976. The Roman alphabet was used and a collection of stories on the life of Jesus was the first book published in Chorote in 1980. That was, of course, a transcendent step to the preservation of the culture, on the one hand, and to the 'rebirth' of the language, on the other. The implications are many but probably the most important is the group's feeling that now Chorote is on a one-to-one level with Spanish, at least in some respects. The representation that what is written is what matters is deeply rooted in the people. If Chorote is written, it matters, it is important. This naturally led the group to attach higher value to their own identity. Needless to say, the process is far more complex than it seems but it is exemplary: languages can and must be saved, people's pride and self-respect are saved along with them.
This new state of affairs was furthered by the government's decision to teach both Spanish and Chorote at school. The fact that Spanish speaking teachers have to learn the language is an obvious drawback to the project, because their representations of the 'foreign' culture are constructucted from their own 'Saltanian culture' representations, but it is a big step ahead . At present, it appears that Chorote people are being trained to become teachers, a change all for the better. Inevitably, as it has always been the case, one language will dominate over the other, depending on people's needs. Are their needs outside the community? Spanish will prevail. Are they inside? Chorote will. This is far from being a fixed unchanging choice, even for the same individual; it will very likely vary with age or occupation, among other reasons. Also, the 'bilingual school' system will have to be adjusted in the future but it is unquestionably a great step taken towards integration (as distinct from assimilation) into a vaster, more generous culture which is not the 'addition of existing cultures (but) their metamorphosis' (Malraux, 1945) achieved through mutual respect and cooperation.
I would like to borrow the words of the Venezuelan thinker J.M. Briceño, quoted by Savater, before going on to the final conclusions: 'The western will of power seeks to universalise, to make e pluribus unum , to reduce the multiplicity of cultural worlds to the unity of its own world, to bring into its circle stars and songs, oceans and myths, birds and families, marigolds and children's games; they want them to pass through their ring, to obey the crack of their intellectual whip, to dance to their music. I won't be good at it. I want a varied, scattered, heterogeneous world...' (1)
1. Languages, like animals and plants, can become extinct and disappear carrying with them rich worlds which are gone forever. It is our duty to look at minority languages from a different perpective. We should forget for a while that we belong to the dominant majority and imagine what it must feel like when one's own culture, one's own identity is threatened.
2. Languages can be saved, a good example is Chorote. However, governments should become actively involved and enforce serious policies to help preserve and disseminate indigenous languages in order to contribute to a more tolerant society where subgroups -the term is not used derogatorily- are known and respected. Nevertheless, the fact that the State should take action, does not relieve individuals of their duty to fight against discrimination and intolerance.
3. The tendency to a highly globalised world should open our eyes to an urgent need to maintain our own identity and assist others in maintaining theirs. Difference is enriching; uniformity goes against our very nature.
(1) My translation.
-Renart, Laura (2000) Metodología de la
enseñanza de la lengua extranjera. Inglés (Salta: Universidad Nacional
de Salta, facultad de Humanidades, departamento de Lenguas Modernas)
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