December 7, 2020
by Claudine Chamoreau, linguist and CNRS Senior Researcher at the SeDyL Laboratory (Structure and Dynamics of Languages). Currently the Deputy Director of CEMCA, managing the CEMCA office in Central America (Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos) in Guatemala.
On October 26, 2020, while Covid-19 was paralyzing a large portion of Honduras, Dixon Davadyd Alvarez Ortiz, the Deputy Director of the Intercultural Bilingual Education of the Ministry of Education inaugurated the first on-line course of the Pesh language (also known as Paya, of the Chibcha family) on Facebook. Also present at the inauguration, Dixon Davadyd Alvarez Ortiz' predecessor, Wilson Martínez Martínez, revealed the main objective of the course, totally done on-line: learning the Pesh language as a daily communication language for the Pesh and the people who wanted to.
For years, Honduras has been deep into an economic, political and social crisis. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), it is one of the poorest countries of the Americas, with around 70% of the population under the poverty line, of which 40% in extreme poverty. This significantly broken down situation leads to massive emigration: in 2019, over 300 000 poeple emigrated to the United States and it is estimated that close to 10% of the population has already emigrated and established itself mainly in the United States, Mexico, Guatemala and Spain (there are several reasons for the emigration, the main ones being poverty, violence and the lack of social opportunities). The Covid-19 epidemic, which led to the closing of borders and airports, not only strongly hit Honduras, but was also an indicator of abysmal inequalities in its society. In fact, poverty can be found mainly in rural areas where indigenous populations in particular live. There are six indigenous languages in the country and their native speakers, all bilingual in Spanish, represent about 2% of the population (Table 1).
In October 2020, two teachers, Angel Martinez and Danilo Lugo, working in these very poor communities — Moradel, near Trujillo and La Laguna, near Carbon — launched the Pesh course on-line. This action, born out of a response to the isolation of indigenous communities caused by the crisis, fights against the accelerated loss of the language transmission among young people in the villages and more generally the lack of interest in indigenous languages in the country. A breach in the transmission is one of the key factors in the loss of languages globally and over 80% of the current 500 native speakers of Pesh are 60 years old, which means the Pesh language is dangerously close to extinction according to the UNESCO Atlas.
The Pesh course is consubstantial with an awareness of the importance of speaking one's family and community's language on top of the national language, Spanish. This course is part of the effort made by some teachers who have become significant social actors within the communities, to maintain indigenous languages and cultures despite the current situation which encourages the use of the national language and the loss of knowledge and collective ancestal memories. Thanks to their energy and their altruism, Angel Martinez and Danilo Lugo are recognized as linguistic, cultural and educational mediators in the eyes of different Pesh communities and national authorities.
The length of this free course was first planned to last three months, with two 2 hour sessions per week, and is for adults. The 35 who enrolled are between 20 and 40 years old and are for the most part elementary school teachers in different communities known as traditionally Pesh, but where the language is no longer spoken, except maybe by a few old people. Some students come from communities where other indigenous languages are spoken by the elders, or from villages and towns where only Spanish is used. Most of the participants have neither a computer, nor wifi, and follow the course on a cell phone thanks to the 4G network, which means the students can be heard and, less often, seen.
Despite tenuous conditions because of the isolation of some villages and the loss of network because of the instability of the service (from lack of employees because of Covid-19 and the Eta and Iota storms which hit Honduras in November), the course has been consistent and has turned out to be interactive, dynamic and practical. Since the main intended goal is the maintenance, and also the introduction of the Pesh language as an everyday communication language, the methodology has been adapted and themes centered around conversation: salutations, personal introduction, daily life expressions, family members...In order to introduce a bit of grammatical variety without delving deeply in this area, sentences are essentially expressed in the present, but can also be reformulated in the past and the future. Also, depending on the topic, different people are introduced to the conversation as naturally as possible: "How are you?", "I'm good", "My name is XX and his name is YY", etc.
The course is interactive and the students intervene often by either repeating the expressions and sentences, or by questionning each other. The oral exchanges during class are fondamental, as well as the homework to do. Each week, each student must do a video that lasts at least one minute and depicts an exchange with a member of his community (children, spouse, students, parents, friends, neighbors) who are not participating in the course and with whom he communicates in Pesh. In this first phase, only oral communication has been chosen even though writing is used. The notes are simplified and their reading corresponds to the pronunciation of the language. The two teachers, participants in a project to document the Pesh language, are aware of the difficulties of its complex grammar.
Born out of an initiative by the members of the Pesh community, this course quite logically fits under the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) proclaimed by the UN. Its objective is to promote education to indigenous population in their mother tongue and to use the potential of digital technologies to support the use and preservation of these languages. The UN resolution, proclaimed in 2019 at the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, meets the urgency of the situation. According to UNESCO, about 7 000 languages are spoken worldwide, of which 96%, so 6 700, are spoken by only 4% of the population and before 2100, about 90% of these languages will have disappeared. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 26% of the languages are likely to disappear very soon.
The Pesh course, innovative since it reinforces oral communication in an indigenous language, is therefore part of a more generalized movement to promote the presence of all languages on digital plateforms, of which recent intiatives for example, among many others, are the set up of a Wikipedia site in Kaqchikel in Guatemala, a Youtube channel in Quichua in Ecuador and a Tik Tok one in Nahuat in Mexico. Having had to switch to generalized remote learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this could in the end contribute to reinforcing this movement by making it commonplace to learn on-line. It may also mean that more people confined in their communities will be interested in their native culture.
Claudine Chamorea is a linguist and CNRS Senior Researcher at the SeDyL Laboratory (Languages Structures and Dynamics). Currently the Deputy Director of CEMCA, she manages the CEMCA office in Central America (Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos) whose headquarters are in Guatemala. She has written numerous articles on the purepecha languages (Mexico), and pesh (Honduras) and also co-edited several books. Her complete resume can be found the CEMCA website and on Academia.