When speakers are missing… The zápara school in Ecuador

Posted by Anne-Gaël Bilhaut on October 29, 2010

Anne-Gaël Bilhaut is an anthropologist. She has carried out a PhD study on the Zápara ethnic group (ended in 2007), thanks to grants from the EREA Center (CNRS), the Legs Lelong and the Musée du Quai Branly. Her research has focused on the production of the intangible heritage of this amazonian people. Today she discusses the issue of language transmission among záparas.


Záparas are estimated at less than 500. A « small people », as they call themselves, that has gained international attention in 2001 after the UNESCO proclaimed the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. What earned them this honour was their effort in promoting their language and culture in Ecuador.

Záparas live in the North-West of the amazonian rainforest, along the Upper Tigre river in Peru, and Pindoyacu and Conambo rivers in Ecuador. There are only 6 speakers of the zápara language (zaparoan linguistic group) left in the country, and today conversations are carried on in kichwa.

In 2000, Ecuadorians created the DIENASE (Dirección de Educación de la Nacionalidad Sápara del Ecuador). Their aim was to found a new system of trilingual education in zápara, kichwa and spanish. Built on the will to reclaim the zápara language and reassert its value, it puts an important emphasis on the teachings of fathers and mothers (in particular : knowledge of plants, training in basketwork and ceramics).

To offer a trilingual education when only 6 elders scattered in distant villages actually speak the language is a challenge that Záparas probably underestimated. At first, it was the elders who gave language classes, especially of vocabulary and singing. Then the young people ended secondary school, and some registered at the university. One of them even presented a dissertation on zápara for his bachelor degree.

In reality, due to the very low number of speakers, the zápara school in the villages is not really trilingual. It is rather bilingual in kichwa and spanish. Since it proved impossible to provide education directly in their original language, it was finally decided that a curriculum both on the zápara language and the zápara people should be opted for. In order to achieve this, they train, imagine and elaborate teaching tools, hoping that one day they will master their language again. What is certain is that they had never spoken about it so much ; they now even have an opinion on its writing.

> Next week, Gérard Lavigne will take us to New Caledonia. He will tell us about oceanian languages being used for an effective teaching of mathematics.


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Education in mother tongue

Posted by Rozenn Milin on October 24, 2010

So here we are, the Sorosoro blog is starting as an actual blog, a space for discussion, a space you are all welcome to take a part in either by submitting your own articles, or simply by joining your comments to other users’ opinions.

For a start we’re throwing in a discussion on mother tongue-based education, which should last over a few weeks and trigger number of reactions. Crucial subject indeed: developing countries are often the ones bearing the widest linguistic diversity, in addition to bearing the need to improve literacy among their populations. Any thoughts on the issue, examples, experience, figures… please feel free to drop a line, whether you’re a researcher or just a language lover.

Let us set the basis of the present debate: studies conducted across the world by various organizations have proved that providing literacy to a child in their native language generally shows excellent results, whereas imposing instruction in national language or in a foreign language right from the start often leads to failure.

The World Bank itself claims the case in the Sourcebook for Poverty Reduction Strategies (2001), following a 1999 UNICEF report: (…) there is ample research showing that students are quicker to learn to read and acquire other academic skills when first taught in their mother tongue. They also learn a second language more quickly than those initially taught to read in an unfamiliar language.

Linguists Thomas and Collier (1997) have led extensive research on the subject, and come up even more precise: they’ve observed that children from linguistic minorities having received most of their primary school education in mother tongue also had the best results … in national language, on the national standardized tests led in highschools.

These results are very clear, and one could even argue they’re only a question of common sense, although some still find it hard to admit. It’s a shame these facts and figures aren’t taken into better account, considering that success at school conditions all possible chances to improve the living standards of millions of children’s: successful literacy stands yet as the best asset to avoid globalization casualties.


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October 6, 2010: one year already! www.sorosoro.org was launched a year ago, day for day

Posted by Rozenn Milin on October 6, 2010

The excitement was huge, with an endless turnover of interns and volunteers (may they be thanked again and again!) helping us putting this website together at last, a website we hoped to be rich, instructive, thorough, but also fun and open to all. Quite the challenge.

The days and weeks that followed were also rocked about in turmoil, with a language planisphere constantly crashing, the rush to publish new videos every week, an English version, and then a Spanish version launched at the same time with the hope translations would come about in due course…

Some days during this year did eventually turn out as a nice little mess, but the outcome speaks for itself: our planisphere might experience a few glitches here and there, yet it is one of a kind, and it is now able to locate 5500 languages without a problem; week by week, our website has added up over sixty videos, all available in French, most available in English, and soon available in Spanish!

Internet users now have access to hundreds of articles, including indexes of the near 120 language families used across the planet nowadays, and a number of language indexes growing daily thanks to all the support we have received from linguists, anthropologists, activist, language lovers of all kinds and speakers of all kinds of languages.

We’re most grateful for your multiple collaborations. Thank you for making the Sorosoro website more and more popular, day after day, thank you for keeping an eye on our work, and getting so involved. Our ambition is also to create discussion and debate, so www.sorosoro.org can become a space for conversation and exchange on the themes of endangered languages, cultural diversity, native peoples, and the protection of a world that needs to remain diverse in order to remain human.

And here we are a year later, taking another step forward with the launch of… our blog! Not just an editorial like this one, which will therefore be the last: an actual blog, in which you’ll be able to take part, suggest your own views, publish your own articles and react to others’. The Sorosoro Blog will open within a week or two. So please hold on to your tongues and keyboards, and expect the chance to speak up soon; we’re about to kick off our first discussion on a subject that could stir up quite a lot opinions and reactions: mother tongue-based education.


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