On 7th August, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner inaugurated the Complejo Bilingüe Intercultural Consejo Nam Qom via videoconference, a bilingual Spanish-Qom school located in Pampas del Indio, a town 200km north of Resistencia, the capital of Chaco.
Qom is a language from the guaycurú family spoken by the Toba (or Qom) indigenous people who currently total an estimated 70,000 in Argentina and reside mainly in Formosa and Chaco provinces.
The complex, which will house all three levels of education, from primary to tertiary, will be administered by the indigenous Qompi Council, in what they have called a system of ‘social indigenous administration’
The Minister of Education of Chaco, Francisco Romero, stated that having teachers that are fluent in the language will enable a more pedagogical structure for learning in the Qom language. For this reason, he explains that half the teachers will be indigenous, providing a more holistic approach to the learning process, that goes beyond just teaching the language. The school hopes to incorporate teachers that also are educated in the cultural practices of their ancestors.
The school’s principal, Miguel García, believes that the participation of the Qompi Council “will guarantee the educational integration of the indigenous peoples.”
The issue of disappearing indigenous languages is a growing concern internationally, and many wonder what kind of impact this will have in future generations as centuries of accumulated knowledge and wisdom could disappear with them. In that respect, the inauguration of the bilingual Qom school is Argentina’s first step towards protecting cultural history that could eventually be on the brink of survival.
Bigger Cities, Fewer Languages
With a population of seven billion, the world speaks an estimated 6,909 languages. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA), however, estimates that “80% of the world’s languages may vanish within the next century.”
And, according to the LSA, “when a community loses its language, it often loses a great deal of its cultural identity at the same time.”
The process of globalisation has brought with it a movement towards homogenising languages taught in schools, in an attempt to ease the incorporation of future adults into the global labour market. People are choosing to learn global languages like English, Spanish, and Mandarin in order to better navigate the world in which we live today. Currently, there are an estimated 328 million people with English as their first language and 845 million who primarily speak Mandarin.
As well, technology and greater ease of travel have decreased the gap between cultures. What is positive in terms of sharing information and easing cross-cultural understanding, can be devastating on a micro-cultural level. The problem is that smaller cultures are not usually protected or encouraged to thrive in such a large bowl of more dominant languages and cultures.
In the so-called ‘new world’, colonisation has been a massive historical factor in explaining the loss of indigenous languages too, as many of the original inhabitants of the lands who were not killed had to learn the coloniser’s tongue.
The Argentine Case
According to Ethnologue, an online database of language statistics, there are currently 473 languages that are on the verge of extinction, some within Argentina.
This is a very different panorama to the one 500 years ago when the Spanish first arrived, when there were 35 languages thriving in the territory that is now Argentina. Today, according to the United Nations, there are just 15, and two of them, Tehuelche and Chaná, are critically endangered – meaning only the eldest members of the community understand and speak the language.
The Qom language is not yet under threat. Currently, the Toba represent nearly 11.5% of the indigenous population of Argentina, and statistics from the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs show that around 60% of them can still speak and/or understand the Qom language. However, with each generation, fewer youths learn to speak the language as their communities are increasingly integrated into the Spanish-speaking world.
Immigration from communities in rural areas to urban centres contributes greatly to this integration and interaction with Spanish-speakers. Whilst the vast majority of the Toba people live in rural settings in Chaco and Formosa, and some in the urban area of Greater Resistencia, they have not been immune to migration trends. An estimated 14,000 Toba have left the North East, one of the poorest areas in the country, and now live in the city of Buenos Aires and its surroundings.
As the need for knowledge of the Spanish language increases, it is hoped that the newly-inaugurated school in Chaco will encourage the preservation of cultural practices that could be lost down the line.
Programmes on integrating indigenous languages into the mainstream education system have already been started in other parts of the world, like New Zealand and Canada. Although the positive effects have so far only shown to be short-term, there is still hope that they will continue into the future. These revitalisation programmes, much like the bilingual school in Chaco, are an effort to reconnect generations in order to show the value in preserving the communities’ indigenous languages.
Back to School
The Complejo Bilingüe Intercultural Consejo Nam Qom has 12 classrooms and two additional rooms for technical education, spans 4,000m2, and can accommodate up to 900 students in three shifts. It will not only educate children, as it also includes a high school for adults, a vocational degree in nursing, and diplomas in Indigenous Social Communication and Indigenous Education.
The land the school is on was donated by two older residents and the Artists for Solidarity Foundation, and the provincial and national governments granted $18bn from the Solidarity Fund, generated from the taxes on soy exports.
Officials are hopeful for what the opening of the largest institute in Latin America to offer classes in an indigenous language could mean for the future.
Access to formal education respectful of the tobas’ tradition will provide a foundation for education that could help break the cycle of poverty that exists in the country’s north. It may help integrate the community and diminish the “social distance” between the ‘micro’ and ‘mega’ cultures.
The school may also provide bilingual speakers that could help others integrate, by providing translators and bilingual counsellors to those having difficulty adjusting to a fast-changing world. The possibility of bilingual outreach programs into city establishments, like the Derqui community, is a distinct possibility, hopefully a plausible one.
However, these are still speculations. As the new school begins to operate, the results will hopefully start to be seen and felt by the community soon.
Click here to find out what Argentines think about the role of the state in preserving indigenous culture.