Bilingual education in the Amazon – a journey

by Jeanette Sakel

When I started to work on the language Mosetén in the Bolivian Amazon 15 years ago, I realised pretty early on that I was looking at a language that was ‘endangered’. The village where I had started to work was still predominantly Mosetén speaking, but there were quite a few families where Spanish seemed to play the main role. Many children were growing up speaking only Spanish.

There are many reasons for this… Spanish is the national language of Bolivia, and despite other ‘big’ indigenous languages benefitting from national language status in the country, Mosetén was never going to compete. With under a thousand speakers living in close vicinity to Spanish-speaking migrants from the Andean highlands, the Mosetén language was confined to the family domain and viewed by the migrants as ‘less important’ or even ‘simple’ – which enticed some Mosetenes to hide the fact that they could speak the language.

Many families encouraged the use of Spanish, hoping this would help their children do well in the exclusively Spanish-speaking schools. Because there were so few Mosetenes, and most followed the agricultural career-paths of their families, there were no Mosetén-speaking teachers. There were no teaching materials, back then, in 1999. But there was a lot of goodwill.

I remember visiting a young family. The parents, Adan and Ruth Misange, were very keen for their children to speak Mosetén, to grow up with Mosetén as part of their heritage. I also remember meeting Juan Huasna Bozo for the first time. Like many other Mosetenes, he had married a lady from outside the ethnic group. Their children had been growing up speaking predominantly Spanish. Yet, Juan was adamant that Mosetén children ought to be given the chance to learn Mosetén. And not just that – but also be able to read and write in Mosetén. To know the old stories. To know the culture and heritage.

Juan soon became my main Mosetén teacher. He had done a lot of work on the language already, having started to put together a Spanish-Mosetén dictionary, as well as trying to figure out how to set up a bilingual education programme for the children of the ethnic group. Juan was a natural linguist, as well. He picked up on the grammatical categories we were working on. He learnt to transcribe and translate data using a computer. He soon started to think about ways in which we could put together teaching materials for the language.

Alongside my work to write a descriptive grammar of Mosetén, I worked with Juan on putting together teaching materials for the language. We started off with a generic booklet tsinsi’ mik with old stories, jokes, songs and the like. Then we put together a comic strip (based on a Mosetén story), and a primer with pictures of traditional artefacts, animals and plants – drawn by young adults working in our team.

Juan took the booklets back to the Mosetén communities, distributing them among the families. Today, two of the booklets are hosted on my Academia profile and can be downloaded and reproduced (and the user statistics indicate that this is the case – a lot!). I also wrote a Spanish-language short grammar of Mosetén and Chimane/Tsimane’, to be used to educate teachers about the structures of the language.

For some years now, Juan has been working as a bilingual educator – a teacher of Mosetén. This type of education is crucial for the survival of Mosetén, as it not only shows that the language is valued (it has a place in school), but also passes on the ability to read and write in the language. To know the old stories (gruesome as most of them might be), to know the culture and heritage of the people.

Last year, the following film was put together, featuring Juan teaching Mosetén to children of the local area. It is entirely in Mosetén (with Spanish subtitles – though listen out for loanwords such as ishkwera ‘school’ from Spanish ‘escuela’). It’s lovely to hear Mosetén and to see the efforts going into passing on the language. And it is really nice to see the young children engage with this!

Mosetén bilingual education film

I’m still in touch with Juan. By email, most of the time! When I started working with him 15 years ago, contact was considerably more difficult. There was a radio that was operated once or twice a week. I had to get in touch with an office in La Paz, who would (if I was lucky) pass on my message to the Mosetenes (if, indeed, contact could be established by radio). Maybe five years later a phone was installed in one of the villages, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Now, for a few years, contact has been by email or mobile phone! The world keeps turning. And the Mosetén language has a real chance for survival.

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