As Peru looks to develop a new nationwide bilingual education law, Latin Correspondent speaks to Elena Burga, director of bilingual education for Peru’s Minstry of Education to find out what’s next for the country:
Latin Correspondent: It seems like a critical moment for bilingual education in Peru. What’s it like in the office?
Elena Burga: In the last four years, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the policy of bilingual education, and we’ve achieved implementation in more bilingual schools for indigenous populations. When it comes to normalizing the languages, we’ve developed official alphabets for 31 of 47 languages, and have materials for students in 23 of them. We’re in the process of consulting with indigenous organizations about the plan for 2021, which contains all of the steps we have to take until that year to provide for all of the bilingual schools.
Latin Correspondent: What does the process of consultation look like?
Burga: The process began in October…We’ve had what we call the “informative period,” that has included various events and workshops in Lima and regionally – one for the indigenous towns of the Amazon in Iquitos, Loreto and the other for the indigenous towns in Puno. Right now, we’re ending the year and in January…we’re going to organize the suggestions we receive, and see how these communities evaluate the plan. And then comes the period of dialogue, the final period, where the Ministry of Education will sit down with national organizations (representing indigenous communities) to begin a dialogue in good faith…where they will suggest things that the plan is missing, what needs to be rethought, improved, or altered.
Other things we might adopt…after this period we’ll have a better, more universally accepted plan that should be approved by the ministry with a resolution in February.
Latin Correspondent: What are some of the suggestions put forward by the communities you’ve consulted?
Burga: In reality, there’s a lot of agreement. A crucial topic is the training of the teachers. Everyone is very concerned that many bilingual teachers who speak native languages do not have formal preparation in bilingual education. They have to be trained.
Many of them also lack a degree. We need to give them degrees. And then there’s the fact that many are losing their languages. Not everyone speaks the native language, even among indigenous populations. Finally, there are many Spanish-speaking teachers in bilingual schools who need to be relocated.
(Communities) have also suggested things that have to do with the participation of the elderly in schools… which had been considered…but it’s been suggested that participation be a little more formal, not up to the whim of the teachers to invite them. The elderly have to participate.
Latin Correspondent: Early studies of bilingual programs in Peru sometimes found a bit of suspicion on the part of indigenous communities. To what do you attribute this reticence? What are you doing to overcome it?
Burga: In reality, there’s much less resistance, but it still exists. And this is because the people in the communities, the mothers and fathers, have suffered in our country for being indigenous. Speaking an original language has always been a motive for discrimination. It’s not that they don’t want to speak their languages, or want their language to disappear. It’s not that they want to leave behind their culture. They’ve lived through a lot of discrimination, there’s been a lot of marginalization and they don’t want their children to suffer the same.
To ensure this, they want their children to learn Spanish, to speak Spanish very well. They say, “I’m going to speak the original language in my house, but in school they should speak Spanish.”
One of the most fundamental things, more so than the contents of the plan, is that we want to bring the state and indigenous organizations closer to generate more trust, but at the same time ensuring that the organizations consider education as one of their priorities, because it’s not always the case.
Sometimes they don’t put a high priority on education, and we want them to speak with their members and explain why children in their towns should learn in accordance with their culture and language and learn both Spanish and English in secondary school. Having a period of consultation has many positive effects.
Latin Correspondent: In this generation of children, are there still children who speak no Spanish?
Burga: Yes. There are a few. Fewer that before, but they still exist. Or they have a very very tenous level of Spanish. We see this in children who have finished primary or secondary school and arrive at the institute to train as teachers with a very basic level of Spanish. From certain areas: above all the Urarina, the Matses, the Secoyas. There could also be Quechuas and Aymarás who are very isolated, but fewer. (Andean people) are more bilingual. But in the Amazon you could still find situations like this. Or children who have finished primary school and haven’t made it to secondary, because only 40 percent attend and 30 percent finish. And so yes there could be many children speaking only their original languages, but as I said it’s increasingly fewer.
That’s why we’re working on a bilingual education plan that’s cultural and linguistic, which is another method that.
Latin Correspondent: You mentioned that Spanish is entering communities more strongly, but not always in the best way. What do you mean by that?
Burga: In the sense that Spanish comes in over the radio, the television, newspapers and products that come into the communities are all written in Spanish. There’s constantly more contact with Spanish-speakers and with media that broadcasts in Spanish, but (children) are not learning adequately in schools with a methodology to learn quality Spanish. And what’s more, Spanish enters as an imposition, the original language doesn’t stand out.
Latin Correspondent: One other question: why should we value a bilingual education? What’s it worth?
Burga: There are a couple of strong reasons. On one hand is the more technical. Children, and this is proven everywhere, learn better when they’re taught in accordance with their reality, their culture, and in their mother tongue. After that they can learn a second, third, or fourth language.
On the other, there’s a more political reason that has to do with the formation of intercultural citizens, with respect to the diverse languages and cultures there are in Peru. To respect this diversity as a right, not just an individual right of the child, but also a collective right of the indigenous community.
Peru has signed Convenio 169 of the International Workers Organization, which speaks of the rights of the indigenous, as well as the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.
This is the double argument for a bilingual education.
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