Requiem for a dying language

We asked an old woman on the street where we could find a laundry. She couldn’t help us. It wasn’t that she didn’t know, it was that she didn’t speak Spanish.

Quechua, the language the Incas used to tie communication together across their empire is still spoken by some 4.5 million Peruvians – about one in five – as a mother tongue. In some areas like around Cusco, it’s the most spoken language. But Spanish is the language of commerce, government and education everywhere.

Later Fiona spoke to her manicurist and masseuse about language. They’d both begun life speaking Quechua, and that’s all their parents speak, but they’d picked up Spanish when they came to town for economic opportunity. They speak Spanish with their kids. And their kids have no interest in speaking Quechua.

Interestingly it isn’t a pure ethnic cleavage that defines who speaks Spanish. Most Peruvians are some shade of indigenous/colonial mix. Instead Quechua speakers tend to be poorer and more rural. Both the women Fiona spoke with said that, as a result, there’s some shame associated with speaking Quechua, an attitude that is apparently widespread.

Is the government killing Quechua?

Quechua isn’t widely used as a written language. There are no Quechua magazines and no newspapers. It’s also not widely used in education. There’s some Quechua primary schools but almost no secondary or higher education.

The Ministry of Education is peddling a new initiative for Quechua speaking primary students around Cusco. The schooling is described as bilingual, but actually they only teach in both languages until the kids become fluent in Spanish. Then Quechua is dropped. It’s probably a better option for kids that are otherwise thrown into a foreign language environment at age five or six, but it’s not really bilingual.

There’s a notable irony that the government is a champion of Incan history as a source of tourism and cultural pride, but is arguably killing off the language the Incas spoke.

There are reasonable arguments which say that language, like all elements of culture, should be allowed to develop organically without government meddling. That argument says we shouldn’t try and resurrect or promote dying languages. But it’s a different thing entirely to effectively be killing off a language by not allowing for it in public institutions. Peruvian policy feels much more like requiring Maori children to speak English in school in the twentieth century than setting up Maori TV in the twenty first.

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