Pushing the paradigm of language recovery: the cases of Basque and Nawat

This is an expanded version of the similarly titled seminar I gave at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa in October, 2014, for all those interested.

Language recovery: Can we learn from each other (please...)?

This talk takes its inspiration from two key parts of my life experience. I moved to Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) in the late ‘70s, adopted Basque as a daily language as well as an object of study, and ever since have brushed shoulders continually with the Basque language recovery scene. And in the early 2000s I came to a Central American country, El Salvador, and got deeply involved in a new challenge, the recovery of the country’s only remaining native language, already highly endangered: Nawat. One of my hopes was that I would figure out how to transfer some of what I had learnt from the successes and achievements of the Basque language recovery (LR) experience to a very different context and a new fight.

Basque language recovery has a long, eventful history. As LR processes go, it is fair to describe it as one of the big success stories of our time. This process has involved large parts of Basque society, it has affected many peoples’ lives and forms part of a lot of people’s social and ideological consciousness to a degree that members of many other societies will probably find surprising. Along the way there have been, and still are, ups and downs, achievements and setbacks, breakthroughs and false moves: I like to insist that LR is essentially a social process but it is also, just as inevitably, a learning process. In the course of that process, many lessons have been learnt, and many insights gained, often through trial and error.

Therefore, I have often thought that it is a great shame to see ignorance of and disinterest in other language movements to learn from the mistakes and wisdom gained by one of the most successful LR movements of the present time. That is not to say, of course, that Basques have all the answers, or that every aspect of their particular historical process or practical strategies are going to be directly applicable to very different contexts. No two LR  movements share all the same conditions.

Particularly when beginning to think about the application of this principle to indigenous languages of the Americas, I am aware of a “danger”, either real or imagined, that any attempt to help indigenous language movements by referring to European experiences might turn into a new sort of “colonialism” of European peoples with LR experience dictating to native peoples of the New World how to run their lives, but I think it would be a mistake to overstate the case for that. This is above all an opportunity to pool insights and know-how with due consideration for the particularities of different ground conditions in a mutual learning situation.

All the same, I do think it is worth adding a note of caution, albeit a fairly obvious one, for the benefit of my European colleagues who may need to be reminded not to jump to premature conclusions about the universal applicability of all and every specific tactic or ideological assumption on a terrain with which they are not yet fully acquainted, since this not only can lead to strategic errors but might also be perceived from the other side as foreign arrogance. If at home LR practitioners never stop learning, then when they visit abroad as teachers they would do best to remain open to learning something new.

A (short) history of Basque language recovery

Concern about the decline of Basque and early initiatives to turn the tide on language loss date back to the early 20th century. However, LR efforts were tragically interrupted by the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), followed by Franco’s forty-year-long dictatorship (1939-1975) under which all such things were forbidden in the southern part of the Basque Country: Basques were called traitors to Spain and persecuted, many Basque leaders fled into exile, and the existing LR movement came to a halt for a while. In fact, the Basque language itself was virtually outlawed.

In the middle of this dark period, Basques came to the realisation as a society that their ancestral language was fast losing ground, their identity as a people and a nation (as they saw themselves) was under a grave threat, and they must either do something now or face total assimilation; and language was identified as the key. Defying the law and risking punishment, this (re)awakening society regrouped and a new, vigorous language recovery effort was launched in the 1960s. It included secret schools where young children were taught in Basque (the ikastola movement), Basque language classes for non-Basque-speaking adults where Basque-speaking adults were also taught Basque-language literacy, a clandestine press, an increasingly dynamic literary, musical and cultural movement and a redefined ideology of national liberation as a progressive, rather than conservative, movement.

Franco died in 1975. The authoritarian regime came to an end and a constitutional monarchy was restored in Spain, after which, in the “democratic transition” which followed, the eighties saw the creation of a new system of autonomous regions with limited self-governing powers. Two such regions were recognised in the southern Basque Country: the Basque Autonomous Community and the “Foral” Community of Navarre. In each of these regions different official language policies were established and implemented. (France has yet to recognise constitutionally the existence of the part of the Basque Country in its territory as a distinct political entity or to grant it any self-governing powers.)

To put my personal experiences into chronological perspective, I moved to Euskal Herria in 1978, after having followed events in Spain closely from abroad since 1974, and a year living in Catalonia (1977-8). Remember that Franco had died in 1975.

Thus two distinct landmarks in the recent history of Basque language recovery are the flowering of the Basque grassroots language movement which got going in the sixties, in the middle of the Franco period, and an official regime change (which led to the creation of new institutions and new opportunities to develop the language) which took place roughly twenty years later. Clearly then, the initial growth of the language movement was not causally dependent on any sort of official political backing, and was not generated, instigated or supported from above but from “below” from the sixties onwards. Subsequently the new institutions formed in the eighties took the Basque language movement on board mainly because there was strong social pressure to do so. If the grassroots movement had not happened first I am very doubtful that the new Basque authorities in the eighties would have addressed language recovery anything like as vigorously, and this is a cautionary tale to those tempted to think that we should delegate to government institutions and politicians responsibity and initiative for somehow making language recovery happen. Languages stay alive because people want them to.

Some reflections on language recovery

After that quick sketch, let us take a step back from the immediate context and attempt a reflection on some of the basic principles at work in this process. First of all, what is language recovery?

Language recovery is the reversal of language loss undertaken by the group who has been losing their language. Although we say “reversal”, it is not merely a going back to a former stage of language health, though in early (immature) recovery movements it is typically portrayed in such conservative terms. It is a forwards movement towards a new stage for the language, different both from the present stage of language attrition and that of any earlier historical period. It will inevitably be controversial, arouse debates, and have proponents and adversaries. But it is powered by a growing social awareness that the only way to save the old is by making it new.

Successful LR is thus a paradigm shift. For the community, it means boldly switching mindsets from one which sees the language as a fragile link to the past, to a new mentality which dares to visualize the old language, revived, as a powerful new key to a different future. The language, while still endangered, becomes empowered, imbued with new social and cultural meaning, as the most powerful tool of renewed cultural and even political identity.

LR involves turning the language into all those things that “real living languages” are expected to be: a vigorous, evolving medium of genuine communication and the enabler for building new realities; the common possession of the language community, and a valid instrument for doing all the things any of its members wish to do; a malleable and versatile instrument which can adapt to different and changing media, channels, genres, styles, uses, domains, settings, fashions, technologies, registers, functions and discourses.

Old truisms versus new realities

For those coming from the academic world and from a classical theoretical linguistic background, a real LR movement challenges some of the usual assumptions, and successful involvement in such a movement requires of them a double paradigm shift. First, because this is not a theoretical but an applied field. Secondly, because some conventional assumptions of approaches to language vitalization are themselves open to challenge by more radical ideas.

Here are some popular beliefs or conventional maxims about language recovery which I propose to debunk:

a)      Our language is only a spoken language and should remain so.
b)      Our language is being corrupted by foreign influence and should be kept pure.
c)      Our language belongs to the native speakers, especially the elders, and they are its sole guardians and authority on what is correct or allowed.
d)      Documentation should describe native use objectively, not prescribe what is correct or introduce innovations.
e)      Language recovery depends on learning from the elderly native speakers and teaching little children the language.
f)        The stronghold of our language is the countryside and the rural population, so that is where language recovery should be centred.
g)      Our language is the vehicle of an old, traditional culture whose values and way of thinking must be tied to the survival of the language.

I am now going to take these precepts one by one and refer briefly to how they have been explicitly or implicitly challenged in the Basque language recovery movement of the last fifty years.

a)      Our language is only a spoken language and should remain so.

LR strategies may well involve the “creation” of a “written language X” if there isn’t already one, because: (1) in LR we expand a language’s use into new functions and domains, in which writing may be appropriate, e.g. books, booklets, written literature, press, linguistic landscape etc.; (2) a written form of the language may be necessary or useful for the implementation of new channels of language transmission such as language schools, immersion schools, teaching materials, language documentation etc. Remember that “spoken languages” are not a different type of language from written languages: every written language started out as a “spoken language”. In the case of Basque, the creation of a new written standard and the development of a multitude of unprecedented written uses were both part and parcel of the LR roadmap.

b)      Our language is being corrupted by foreign influence and should be kept pure.

So-called language purity is an aesthetic criterion to which some communities, cultures or individuals are more sensitive or attach different values to than others. However, all living languages must grow, and growth is change, and if all change is viewed as “corruption” and “impurity” then the language’s development will be hampered. After an initial wave of excessive purism in the first half of the 20th century, the modern Basque LR drive was accompanied by an ideological and practical criticism and rejection of ultrapurism and a gradual redefinition of the balance between tradition and innovation.

c)      Our language belongs to the native speakers, especially the elders, and they are its sole guardians and authority on what is correct or allowed.

The idea of native speakers as guardians of the language is correct up to a point and in a certain kind of context but has its issues too. Besides its traditionalist roots, for linguists this idea also harks back to the axioms of modern Saussurean linguistics which declares itself descriptivist and brings to the forefront the spoken language as primary vis-à-vis all written production, thus defining the essence of a language as the spontaneous oral production of native speakers.

While that is true it is not the whole story of a language and should not be adopted as a simplistic dogma underpinning an unbalanced view of holistic language development by ignoring its more sophisticated dimensions. In a social sense, the written language also forms an important part of the language as perceived and identified with by a language community, and where this wider view comes into its own, it is not the case that all native speakers automatically are the best authorities, by virtue of their native-speaker-hood, on everything there is to be known about a language.

In the case of Basque and some other LR movements, a great many new-speaker activists who filled the ranks of the language movement in a crucial period played a prominent role, providing linguists, language teachers, writers, producers of textbooks and learning materials, school staff, university professors and teacher trainers, students and transmitters of cultural traditions, publishers, producers and contributors of the Basque-language press, media and so on, musicians and artists, organisers and activists of support groups of the language movement, etc. The native speaker is still central but for many reasons must share the stage at this decisive moment in the language’s history, for the good of everyone and for survival. Simplistic glorification of the native speaker as the centre of the language’s universe has negative implications which a successful LR movement must learn to sidestep through a broader, more enlightened and inclusive ideology.

d)      Documentation should describe native use objectively, not prescribe what is correct or introduce innovations.

For LR, documentation is not an end in itself, it is necessary and important but it is a means to an end: the recovery of the language as a living, growing, vigorous medium of cultural and community cohesion, expression and progress. Its purpose is not to construct a static museum of the language as it was or a memorial to it but to collect and generate the information needed for the language to carry on as a living expression of a growing culture and serve the new needs of a new generation of un-self-conscious participants in a version of that culture relevant to their own lives and times.

e)      Language recovery depends on learning from the elderly native speakers and teaching little children the language.

Contrary to what some people may believe, old people and little children cannot bring about language recovery. LR is a challenging, proactive social process the burden of which must be carried by the active age group of the community, namely adults between the age of 17 and 57 who are capable of hard work, fighting the fight, pushing for change, making things happen and leading the way forward. The elderly are not in a position to do this and neither are children, on their own. Therefore, a large enough proportion of the adult population has to be brought into the LR movement for it to become viable, and this means adult second-language learning for many of them, because they typically represent the weakest link in spontaneous language transmission. The central importance of adult language learning must not be denied or underestimated; it is in reality the key.

The realisation of this in the Basque experience marked a turning point. The adult generation which realises that the survival of their ancestral language depends on them is a generation that, in a sense, sacrifices itself for future generations, because this generation adopts a language it speaks imperfectly so that their children and grandchildren can speak it perfectly, it works hard to achieve what future generations will achieve effortlessly thanks to them. These are people who will give up time and resources that could be spent on other voluntary or economic activities to devote that time and those resources to the LR movement. People who will voluntarily decide not to speak to their own children in their native language in order to make their children native speakers of the language undergoing LR.

Besides the need to do the work of teaching, building, creating and fighting for their language, the other reason why they are so important is because of the role of adults as example givers. Children learn and absorb what they see, not what they are told if the two things don’t coincide. If you as an adult speak Spanish and tell your children to speak Basque they may do so as children but as adolescents they will follow the example you have given and speak Spanish because they saw you do it. If you want to tell children to speak Basque you have to tell them in Basque! Adult language learners will speak the language imperfectly but that doesn’t matter; their children will speak it better, this is a problem that self-corrects.

f)       The stronghold of our language is the countryside and the rural population, so that is where language recovery should be centred.

Experience shows that LR movements do not initially take off in the heart of the traditional language community, but what might be considered its edges. Typically, the heart of the language community is in the remote countryside; yet typically, LR movements take off in urban centres where the language is not generally spoken, because that is where the social conditions arise to motivate the movement and provide the social and other resources for it to get started.

This often comes as a surprise and may even lead to some attempts to reject the nascent movement as unauthentic or alien, but it seems that it cannot be any other way and all we can do is try to avoid and reconcile any such conflict. Thus, the traditionally rural language suddenly finds itself in an urban setting. But in the long perspective of LR, that is actually coherent because LR is about the language expanding into new domains. You don’t have to be poor to speak language X - not any more. You no longer need to live far away from civilization to speak X. You no longer need to belong to the lower social classes. You don’t have to lack education to speak it. It can even be spoken in the city. In fact, up to a point, it must be spoken in the city to stop it from dying in the countryside. It may be a contradiction, but it is how it works.

g)      Our language is the vehicle of an old, traditional culture whose values and way of thinking must be tied to the survival of the language.

Finally, it is simply not true that you must subscribe to a certain ideology, adhere to a particular way of life, uphold particular values, belong to a certain religion or think in a certain way to speak a given language and be part of its language community. These are separate questions which can be discussed and debated in society but cannot be tied simplistically to the language, or used to exclude or deny the validity of people who use a traditional language to question traditional ideas. A LR movement often becomes partly associated with new ideas and results in language X becoming, among other things, a vehicle for developing new social movements. Thus, a language is indeed the key to a culture but culture still changes and language constantly adapts to the dynamics of emergent cultural creation.

Nawat language recovery

Nawat used to be the most widely spoken language in the western and central regions of the small Central American state of El Salvador. It and the groups of people who spoke it were the newest arrival to the region prior to European contact, having migrated south from Mexico several centuries earlier according to most current scholars; their language is thus about as closely related to the Nahuatl of Mexico as two Romance languages may be to each other (say Spanish and Portuguese, for example). In what is now El Salvador, the Pipils, as these people are now usually called, were perhaps at first invaders and certainly later on the neighbours of the Lenca (to the east) and Maya (to the north and west) groups who spoke languages unrelated to theirs. Fast-forward to the beginning of the twentieth century which is the time when modern documentation of the Nawat language begins, and it was still widely spoken whereas the other indigenous languages in El Salvador either had already disappeared or were in the process of dying, swallowed up by the official language, Spanish. Although still in use, Nawat was already described as on the decline by the 1920s. Then came a new catastrophe, the massacre of tens of thousands of Pipils in 1932 by soldiers under the orders of the Salvadorean military government. It was a holocaust and it was genocide. The pretext was a peasant revolt in reaction to untenable living conditions resulting from relentless expropriation to make way for the interests of a few self-interested plantation owners with the support of the right-wing government. All indigenous people were deemed culprits and enemies of the state, and were imprisoned or summarily executed. Criteria for identifying indigenous people were dress and language! The survivors, unsurprisingly, adopted non-indigenous dress, stopped speaking their language and buried their ethnic identity deep inside the confines of their hearts. They lived in fear up until the beginning of the present century, traumatized by a past that is rarely discussed or remembered in polite Salvadorean society. What remained of Nawat languished in a few corners of the countryside, was scarsely transmitted at all to the post-'32 generation, was for the most part ignored by national academics, and scantily and privately recorded by a small handful of foreign dilettantes or so-called "experts" brought over by half-hearted and short-lived government "revitalization projects" which led nowhere. Fortunately, Lyle Campbell turned up on this scene of devastation and with his landmark scientific study of Nawat as still spoken in the remote country areas where it had not succumbed, shone a welcome light on a language that was otherwise receding into obscurity and certain death. His very important book on the Pipil language, published in English by Mouton, was seen by very few eyes in El Salvador and was in any case eclipsed by a new, terrible civil war, again provoked by the excesses of a ruthless reactionary government, which ravaged the country for the following several years (1980-92). Peace brought back yet another right-wing government which had little real interest in the indigenous population and indeed took refuge in denials of its very existence, and this brings us right up to the turn of the new century, my own arrival there in 2002 and subsequent, timid changes in the country at last after the expulsion from power by an awakening electorate of the corrupt conservative party ARENA.

Now I will talk about some of what has been going on with Nawat since my own involvement began in 2002.

A project, still uncompleted, was commenced in 2003 to introduce the teaching of Nawat as a second language to elementary school children in selected schools (mostly public) in the part of the country historically linked to the Nawat language. The project involved developing a curriculum, producing textbooks and training teachers. The institution responsible for this project is the Universidad Don Bosco, situated in a suburb of the capital of El Salvador.

Meanwhile, an association was created which intended to be an umbrella organisation to promote, coordinate, assist and in some cases carry out a whole range of activities, projects and programmes supporting the general objective of Nawat language recovery. It did not have the support of any formal institutions and the founders were mostly local members of society at large, including some native speakers of Nawat. At first it adopted the name of Initiative for Nawat Language Recovery, or IRIN, the initials by which it is still usually known, although the phrase Te Miki Tay Tupal "What is Ours Shall Not Die" was later coined by its members and appended to the official title.

A series of booklets constituting a simple elementary language course (Shimumachti Nawat, "Learn Nawat") suitable for self-study by adults was developed and distributed at a nominal price by IRIN, which also tried unsuccessfully (perhaps the time was not ripe yet) to create and coordinate a network of adult language courses in the towns of the Nawat-speaking region as well as other activities having the general goal of raising awareness of and interest in Nawat.

Despite its difficulties, IRIN slowly grew, continued to work with and within the local population, and eventually carried out an ambitious and important documentation project sponsored by a US academic institution, in which a good number of Nawat-speaking and pro-Nawat individuals were mobilized and energized and a magnificent result was harvested, in the shape of a substantial collection of video-recorded interviews of Nawat speakers speaking Nawat to other speakers on a variety of subjects and in a variety of situations, in various towns. Highly impressive for a language with very few speakers left!

Additionally, IRIN, within the limits of its almost non-existent resources, given that it is an association without official support focusing on an unpopular issue relating to a peripheral part of one of the poorest countries in the world, printed and distributed other Nawat booklets including some of the first ever publications containing continuous texts in Nawat that are just meant to be read in Nawat (as opposed to "Nawat lessons"). Some were original, such as for example a collection of short passages written originally in Nawat by a native speaker (Naja Ni Genaro "I am Genaro", download the PDF) and a new edition in the modern Nawat spelling developed within IRIN, and now more and more widely used, of the greatest classic of Nawat ethnography (Tajtaketza Ipal Ijtzalku, download the PDF).

Now I want to fast-forward to the period beginning in 2005 when I was no longer living in El Salvador but continued working to support Nawat LR from where I was. This is in itself significant as an anecdotal illustration of how things are changing and will continue to change for LR, for let us recall that before the age of the Internet, my physical removal from El Salvador to another continent would have meant that the only ways for me to stay in any kind of contact would have been possibly by phone (but unlikely; at that time no Nawat speaker possessed a telephone!) or through letters (which is not only slow and, for a Pipil, very expensive, but also impractical because nobody could read and write). This began to change with email and then with the gradual growth of a new, young, educated middle-class who have access to such technology and some of whom also have access to the Nawat-speaking region. But it started changing much faster with the appearance and popularity of social media such as Facebook. As we shall see, the impact of these things on the fate of the Nawat LR movement has been massive and total. Thus not only did I never lose the continuity of contact with the slowly growing pro-Nawat community back in El Salvador, but in reality possibilities and realities appeared on the horizon which were virtually unimaginable until recently.

It might not have seemed so at the time, but in retrospect a practical turning point in the further development of the incipient LR effort for Nawat following my return to Europe was the creation of a Facebook group called (in Spanish) "Let's save the Nawat language". Soon after I joined I was invited to become one of its admins. From a handful of people the group has grown to nearly four thousand members today, not at all bad for a topic which was non-existent in the minds of most Salvadoreans, of whom there are only about seven or eight million or so in total in the world (with at least a million of them in the diaspora, principally in North America). That's one in every two thousand people! Proportionally, that's the equivalent of a Facebook group relating to the United States having 150,000 members. However, the strength of this group is not just in the number of its members (many of whom we assume are only nominal members who may rarely if ever look at it, but that's the same with all groups), but lies in
  • the degree of activity that takes place on the group
  • the diversity of its membersip and the degree of interest of many members
  • the dynamic discussions
  • the other groups focusing on more specific dimensions and approaches related to Nawat LR that have arisen over the years as spinoffs
  • the role the group has continuously played for several years as a key meeting place, information hub and reference point for a growing array of activities and initiatives relating to Nawat, not only in "cyberspace" but in the off-line, real world too
  • last but certainly not least, this group's ongoing role as a virtual central address for what we might perhaps call the New Nawat Language Community, an online community to some extent but a real community nonetheless, of a new kind maybe, in a new medium certainly, but still a community centred on the Nawat language to be counted as an additional asset for the language in addition to the original, "real", on-the-ground, historical Nawat language community which is still there and it is the prime objective of this new community that it should remain there, and grow, and be reinforced and enriched from the new, virtual, Nawat community which has crystalized and burst into existence with the Salvemos el Idioma Nahuat Facebook group as its seed.
The first need perceived by the early members of this new community was for materials, preferably on-line and freely available, to help all who were interested learn some Nawat. We addressed that need by distributing (through a separate Facebook group) a continuing series of Nawat lessons which were based on my earlier Shimumachti Nawat course that IRIN was still distributing in print in El Salvador, with contributions from other volunteers to provide the lessons with exercises and even a teaching guide. This project was named Timumachtikan Nawat ("let's learn Nawat"). Lessons and other materials were uploaded as documents which anyone could download and the group was used to discuss the lessons and exercises, ask for explanations and so on, in a very loosely structured and spontaneous arrangement which probably was suitable for the early, unorganised stage which the young movement had then reached.

As these and other initiatives gradually generated a range of resources available for those interested in Nawat, I saw the necessity for a central resource centre with information about and links to everything that was useful and available, and so I created a website for the purpose, the Nawat Resources website. Another need I perceived was for a place where people with a specialist interest or advanced knowledge of Nawat could have a forum of their own to discuss things Nawat on a more sophisticated level, so I set up a smaller Facebook group called the Nawat Linguistic Seminar. At a later time I added a new function to the SLN by putting it nominally in charge of a digital library containing as many possible resources as possible in PDF format which could be made available for study purposes. In another recent development of interest to the scholarly community, I developed an updated, expanded edition of the corpus and lexical database that I originally developed for use in my personal research but is now sufficiently user-friendly to be used by other researchers and advanced students and may now be downloaded. The latest version, NawaCoLex 2.1, includes analytical tools (including concordancing) and gives easy access to important primary language texts (such as the Masin corpus, other collections of oral material or the transcribed IRIN interviews) and also the most important lexical resources, fully and jointly searchable, all integrated into a single platform (using SIL's software platform Field Linguist's Toolbox), together with a special user's manual.

As time went on the number of people interested in learning Nawat grew and the arrangement of the on-line learning group on Facebook became unwieldy; there was also a growing demand to put the language course into a format that people could use off-line or print out in book form. This led me to revise and re-issue the course as a single PDF book, which is what most learners are told to download and study now. It is called Timumachtikan! ("Let's learn!").

Several other uses of social media to promote learning and use of Nawat have also been tried out. On Wikimedia, for example, we now have the beginnings of an on-line Nawat encyclopedia which anybody can edit: Wikipedia In Nawat, and even a Nawat news service (News In Nawat) which is also open to be edited by anyone but is not currently active, but it may come back! Besides their primary functionalities, I see these initiatives as important for morale, so to speak, in that they show people what can be done in Nawat if only we have a mind to do it, give them a glimpse of what could be and what they can make happen, and enhance the public prestige and image of a language which has never before been valued by society.

Coming back to the language learning front, a further development that is a symptom of the health of the movement has been the slowly growing number of people who managed to work their way through the 40 lessons of the elementary coursebook Timumachtikan! and started asking: How can we carry on learning more Nawat? So once the elementary book was finished I started work on what has now turned into a full Nawat grammar course, the first of its kind. This took several years to complete, and at the beginning I set up yet another Facebook group where I started posting documents containing drafts of individual chapters of the future grammar. Since there was little more to offer, we called this an "intermediate language course", and a few enthusiasts gobbled up my material, discussing the points and making up their own example sentences and exercises as they went. I have now finished and circulated [since I gave this talk] the completed grammar, and the associated study group is now called Let's study Nawat grammar.

Another task I set myself and completed shortly after returning to Europe was to produce a new edition in Nawat only and modern spelling of the most important body of native Nawat prose in existence, contained in a very significant work by the German ethnographer Leonhard Schultze Jena, originally published in German (apart from the Nawat transcriptions) in 1925 and at a later date translated into Spanish but not very widely distributed and long out of print. The new edition, already mentioned above, is called Tajtaketza Ipal Ijtzalku ("Talks in Izalco", in reference to the town where the materials were collected; download the PDF), and has since been put on-line via the Nawat Resources website and the SLN digital library. But my reason for mentioning this again in the context of advanced Nawat learning initiatives is that another group was started on Facebook for intermediate-level students to read and study jointly this primary and sometimes challenging text in depth. This is the Ynes Masin Group, named in honour of one of the Nawat-speaking informants Schultze Jena used as sources for the stories and other material in his book; he is the only informant the author cites by name so we have adopted this name to represent both the man himself and the other, anonymous contributors whose identities we may never know.

A variety of other moves have been made to add more reading materials and learning resources, too many to list, but here are some examples:
  • To help intermediate learners, an abridged and simplified re-telling of stories from the Tajtaketza Ipal Ijtzalku collection was produced and put on-line in an "easy reader" format. The PDF booklet's title is Panuk Tik Ijtzalku "It happened in Izalco" (download the PDF).
  • A privately funded long-term project is underway to translate the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) into Nawat. This is a major undertaking and a high standard of quality is being aimed for. To date the New Testament translation has been completed and is downloadable free from several sites, and available in print on demand. The Old Testament has been begun. The translations are being done from the original texts, in Greek and Hebrew respectively. Part of the importance for Nawat of this undertaking is that a corpus of literary Nawat is being developed. It should also be noted that the project, NBTN, is a strong supporter of the Nawat LR effort and has helped finance a number of other activities in addition to bible translation.
  • Selected audiovisual materials from the IRIN-produced documentation project (see above) have been recycled into a series of subtitled and translated fragments of authentic interviews with native speakers in Nawat, with study notes, in a package aimed at learners titled Mukaki! "You can hear it!" Note: at the same time it should be noted that although some parts of the IRIN material have been transcribed and edited, much of the interviews have not yet been processed due to lack of time and human resources; this is something we are making plans to address as soon as possible.
  • In late 2014 a structured on-line Nawat language school has opened its doors. Tuition by volunteer teachers (who may be advanced Nawat students) is offered free of charge to students, who must go through an admission process and compete for a limited number of places, to conserve which they are required to "attend" class regularly and keep up, as they would in a normal school. The Tamachtiluyan Tata Chelino ("Tata Chelino School") is named in memory of a 100-year-old Nawat speaker, one of the last in his native town of Tacuba, who passed away a year ago.
A possible objection to some of these assets is that, impressive as they may sound, one can ask what relevance they have for members of the primary (or "native") Nawat-speaking community out in the villages where they live in relative isolation from modern technology and may not even be literate, not to mention having computer skills. How does any of this affect them? What difference does it make to them? While I agree that such questions are pertinent and need to be asked (repeatedly), I also would hold that we need to provide perceptive and imaginative answers, not fall back on simplistic, cliché'd assumptions of a complete disconnect between "native speakers" and "modern life" is if they did not cross paths at all. At least in the case of the Pipils of El Salvador, this is not a complete picture and is no longer realistic. For one thing we cannot generalize across the whole Pipil community because, just as elsewhere, the ability of the youngest generation to access education and modern technology to some extent is entirely different from the position of the oldest generation of native speakers, while there is also communication between generations within the community. Secondly, this is in any case going to change as time passes, and faster rather than slower, as technology spreads at a breakneck pace. And thirdly, we are all aware of this issue, and realise its importance; and because we are aware of it, members of the "new language community" have both the capacity and the interest to do something about it by reaching out to the primary community, and thanks in large part to technology (whether it be IT or simply better roads and increasing economic power, e.g. for middle-class people to possess cars), such reaching out can and does and will take place. I will mention two current examples of this:
  • It is becoming increasingly frequent for groups of people from the big town to drive out to a Nawat-speaking village in the country on a weekend to meet up with the "grannies and grandads" for a few hours of talk and fun. They come with suggestions for social activities and events which bring joy and excitement to the elderly speakers, as well as a sense of respect and importance, give exposure to the language in the eyes of younger members of the community, and perhaps most important of all, the knowledge that at long last there are young people out there, in the capital no less, who care about their language and culture, which they are bent on learning and keeping alive. One group doing good work that organise such outings is a dynamic new organisation called Colectivo Tzunhejekat or "The crazies".
  • Meanwhile, there is a group on Facebook, Kupanuas Nawataketza "Nawat-speaking Bridge", which prepares the logistics and organises long-distance cybermeetings in which Nawat-speaking people in the countryside have conversations in Nawat with Nawat students who may live anywhere in the world, thus providing the local speakers with a rare opportunity for contact with the wider world, and students a rare chance to practice their language skills with "the real thing", native speakers. As an additional bonus, this initiative, like the last-mentioned one, helps to forge bonds between the two parts of what aspires to become one greater Nawat language community, breaking the two-way isolation and so building towards a greater "Nawat world".

Commentary on the Nawat LR process

The differences between the Nawat process and the Basque process are more obvious than the similarities on a superficial level. The loss of Nawat has reached a much more drastic stage. Today Nawat has very little support in the society at large, it is still largely submerged, invisible or denied. The level of awareness is weak. There are very few resources available. The country and the rural population in particular are faced by poverty and very difficult living conditions. General literacy is weak and only the privileged classes are well-educated.

On the other hand, there is an educated middle-class sector of the population among the urban young and in the diaspora (mainly in North America), who are more politically aware, more concerned about their identity and roots, with a different view of the indigenous population than the traditional one of disdain or hatred at worst, disinterest and aloofness at best. And there are resources that the Basques never had in the early days, such as computing, the internet, social media and the capacity to achieve international projection even as a small movement.

So there are immense challenges, different conditions and new opportunities, but I believe that the negation of the seven fallacies remains equally valid in the Nawat context. Let us end with a brief run-through:

a)      “Creation” of written Nawat, i.e. adaptation and adoption of Nawat as a vehicle of written communication and also a basis of language teaching. Nawat is no longer only a spoken language. Development of and consensus on a standard orthography was a necessary prior step.

b)      Gradual adaptation of Nawat to new functions and domains, such as written literature, translation projects and social media. Nawat is no longer only used by a few elderly in remote rural communities for a diminishing number of purposes. Nawat is getting a new image and acquiring a new destiny. This involves opening the language up to innovative forms and uses, including neologisms.

c)      Nawat is being adopted by an increasing number of non-native speakers as a second language. Nawat no longer belongs exclusively to the native speakers; they are now not its only guardians, defenders, proponents and “owners”. This is not done out of disrespect, selfishness or arrogance; the native speakers are still seen as central to everything, but the role of the new speakers is understood as an alliance, a partnership, and a sacred pact to save, together, what is now their shared linguistic inheritance.

d)      Nawat is being studied on all levels more thoroughly and intensively than ever, but for a new purpose: to guide the LR process and keep it on track as a continuation of the linguistic heritage. Linguistic consciousness reaches a new high at such times as this. In a sense, when LR is peaking “everybody becomes a linguist”.

e)      Adult language learning is becoming a central activity, as is language teaching. For a generation, a large proportion of the language community will participate in this activity either as pupils, teachers or both. Language learning becomes synonymous with community building. Some people will find a vocation in this. Leaders will emerge. In certain circles at least, the figure of “Nawat language activist” will gain respect and become an attractive ambition for some.

f)        Nawat’s centre of gravity is inevitably moving from the country to the town, from rural to urban environments, from the uneducated poor to the educated middle class, from speech to writing, from the "taro patch" (or rather the cornfield) to the internet, social media and phone apps. This will certainly be viewed as controversial or even polemical by some but it is the price of survival, and it is better to embrace it and build on the new opportunities it opens up than to stand on the sidelines looking on with suspicion. Language recovery is a new beginning, not the restoration of a lost past.

g)      As the newly growing language community expands, as the bubble of Nawat-speaking society explodes, so the new community’s openness to ever greater ideological, religious, political, economic and personal freedom and heterogeneity grows and diversifies. Nawat will inherit the culture of the people through whom it has survived until now, but will also develop that culture and build it anew in every generation, for this is what keeping the language alive means: not stagnation but a new bursting forth of energy, vitality and self-assertion.

POSTSCRIPT: Proposal of a Language Recovery Scale

On a theoretical level, what I am suggesting in this talk is that historically, i.e. in the known and attested experience of real LR processes that may be considered to achieve tangible success, what those movements have in common is that they passed through certain identifiable ideological stages which, at the critical make-or-break moment, might be called "paradigms". Characteristically, that critical point involves resolving a contradiction or conflict between what turn out to be two different viewpoints which, I suggest, represent different stages of development in the prevailing ideas of a language community about its language and the whole issue of strategies for the language's survival. 

We can also take a broader view of the (hypothetical or real) progress of language recovery processes from beginning to end, where in the "beginning" we start with a situation where there is no awareness in the community at large of language recovery as either a goal or a process (even though in reality the cards that the community holds may already hold in store only two possible futures: one in which a language recovery process will occur, and another in which the community's language is going to die). The end of a successful LR macro-process will be one where language recovery has been successfully achieved and the process is "over"; the language is as alive as it ever was and safe for the foreseeable future (i.e. as safe as any language can hope to be given the vicissitudes of history; in some cases that may be a more hypothetical than real end-point but may serve as a conceptual target just the same). 

Now I am going to suggest a series of five stages, a "scale" of sorts if one wishes, linking these two extremes. The end-points themselves constitute two of the five stages, so only three remain to be specified. Let us call these stages I, II and III; the end point (where LR is over) can be called IV, and the beginning point before LR commences can just be referred to as Stage 0.

At stage 0, the members of the language community fail to perceive any need for language recovery. Fundamentally this may be for either of two reasons (or a combination of both): speakers either believe that everything is going well with their language and no threat is perceived ("all is fine"), or else speakers don't attach any positive value to the survival of their language ("who cares!"). Stray prophets who call for action to be taken to "save" the language at this stage are likely to be viewed in the community as cranks at best, unwelcome troublemakers at worst.

· Stage 0: No LR awareness ("all is fine" or "who cares!").
· Stage I: "Immature" LR paradigm (conventional "passivist" assumption - see 7 points).
· Stage II: "Mature" LR paradigm (new "activist" ideology of LR).
· Stage III: Mainstreaming of LR (recovery is being achieved, "language normalization").
· Stage IV: End point of LR process (the language is "recovered").

A language community has entered Stage I when community members start talking about the threat to their language's survival and the importance of keeping it alive. This is positive but the problem is that there is not yet an understanding of what really needs to be done to achieve language recovery, and there is rejection of the kind of measures that must be taken if LR is ever to be achieved. The real reason for these measures being rejected is because the dynamics of LR are not understood and a set of false assumptions are retained and defended concerning such basic things as the nature of their language, its decline and the way to halt that decline. Superficially people may well speak in favour of the language and believe that they are defending it, but in practice their behaviours and attitudes are not in tune with that position. They are stuck in an ineffectual paradigm. The Basque LR "movement" (if it can be called that) among those interested in the Basque language around the beginning of the twentieth century might be characterized as being at Stage I, as can the Nawat language situation, among the few people who were worried about Nawat, at the start of the twenty-first century: our language is a spoken language, we need to keep it pure of foreign influence, it belongs entirely to the old native speakers, documentation should describe their usage objectively (except where this come into conflict with the "purity" criterion, which it invariably does!), LR is all about teaching the old people's language to today's children, everything should centre on the rural stronghold and the language must remain linked to the ancient culture and the old ways.

The crucial step in the whole long-term LR schema is the leap from Stage I to Stage II, which consists of a paradigm shift away from the faulty assumptions held sacred in Stage I and the adoption of a different set of assumptions, from which follows in practice a different set of aims and strategies for LR and then the gradual implementation of the new aims and strategies. The drama surrounding LR within the community at this point hinges on an ideological debate among community members between the old and new sets of assumptions, as we shall see shortly. An important component of the Basque LR movement came to embrace this new paradigm from the 1960s onwards; while the same thing is starting to happen in Nawat in our own time, with the ideological sea-change taking place much faster! According to these "new-fangled" and oft-maligned ideas we may mention that we need to create and teach a new written language, purity is relative and change inevitable, the success of LR does not depend only on elderly native speakers but must involve adult second-language speakers too, documentation must serve to build the language and open it to continued development, rather than to make a museum exhibit of its historical corpus (or the failing linguistic performance of a few remaining speakers), adult (as opposed to child) language learning is of central importance in the long-term success of the LR process, the "urbanization" of the language once LR is underway is to be embraced rather than shunned or critised, and the legitimacy of using the language to practise and promote any way of life and new cultural options has to be recognised, because a living language belongs to everyone and society can only move forwards, not backwards (LR is not about receding into the past, especially a dreamt-of past that probably never existed).

I will not attempt to discuss Stages III and IV today, other than to say that Basque may perhaps be described as at an early phase of Stage III at the present time, whereas languages which have completed the cycle of LR such as Finnish or Hebrew may be said to have reached Stage IV.

It is certainly not my intention to suggest that we can draw sharp lines in time separating these stages. Not only may it be possible for people to be won over gradually from one stage to the next, adopting different premises at different times, but more importantly, communities are not ideologically homogeneous and so different perspectives are bound to co-exist, and often to clash, at any given time. Perhaps, then, the real usefulness of this proposed scale, if it has one, is not to let us describe and label a particular LR movement of a language community as belonging to this or that stage, but rather as a way of contrasting language communities in terms of which debate or clash between successive stages constitutes the dominant contradiction in a given community at a given time. Is it:

  • Between 0 and I, i.e. is a debate being played out in the community between those who see no need for LR, who don't perceive a threat to their language or who don't value their language enough to care about its fate, and those who, perhaps from a very conservative perspective, think it is important to preserve the language in its "natural state", ward off foreign influence, glorify the elders who speak it best, document its traditional corpus, teach it to the children, avoid mixing urban and rural cultures, and tie the language to the old ways and ways of thinking as tightly as possible? or
  • Between I and II, i.e. is the main debate now the one between those in the community who argue that we must preserve the language as it is ("and has always been"), keep the language "pure", emulate the oldest speakers and the traditional corpus, teach the children, isolate rural life from urban influence and shun new fashions and ideas (Stage I) and those in the community who want to pursue a new agenda which will emphasize developing the written form of the language, striking a balance between the old and the new, developing new norms of which the oldest speakers are not the only arbiters, prioritizing adult language learning as well as teaching children, orienting documentation to both descriptive and prescriptive agendas, embracing the adaptation of the language to urban as well as rural environments, and making one's language the language of everyone in the community whatever their ideological attitudes and lifestyle choices (Stage II)? This may be summed up in many ways: let me just call it the difference between thinking of LR as a way of looking backwards to the past or a way of looking forwards to the future. One leads nowhere, the other could lead anywhere.

4 comentarios:

Magnus Pharao Hansen dijo...

This is truly impressive Alan, and really appreciated. You give an excellent overview of your thoughts and the way you envision the project.

I do feel that you dodge some of the questions and critiques that are valid with some easy outs. But I guess this is necessary in order to maintain the drive in the project, you can stop too long to look at the critiques.

My main concern is that you focus primarily on the language and not on the community. For me recovering a language is not an objective in itself unless it produces some positive change for the speakers. Language death is the result of sociopolitical processes thate marginalize and victimize their speakers. If the process of language recovery does not directly address this, but for example allows neo-speakers to claim the language as their patrimony without showing any physical solidarity or practical engagement with attempts to improve the lives of the members of the native speech community then I don't see what is won. I am not saying that this is necessarily the case here, but you don't address the question of ownership and ethnicity at all. I also think that here the Nawat case is very different from the Basque case simply because of the different sizes of the speaker bases at the time of beginning the process of recovery. I would like to hear what makes you feel that the cases are actually comparable in that sense.

Nonetheless I really realy enjoyed this post, and thank you for taking the time to write it down. I hope you will allow me to cite it in written work? Or maybe that you will consider submitting it to a journal?

Alan dijo...

Thank you Magnus. As usual, your questions are not easy ones to answer. But I will try, although I would also invite anybody else interested to jump into the debate, and I think it would be a very good thing to "socialize" this issue.

As I hope the above post makes clear, language recovery is a complicated process and pheomenon and so it often resists over-simple dicta and dogmas. Black-and-white rarely works. And so it is with this potentially delicate matter. It is therefore clearly possible to be guilty of excess in either direction: one could go too far defending the "ownership" concept ("it is my language and I do not give you permission to learn it" as one Albanian said to me; goodness knows what his problem was) but one could also go off the deep end in the opposite direction by tring to take over the language completely in a fashion which pays absolutely no attention to the fact that the language has a native community who consider it their language (a failing I sometimes feel I perceive in certain fora of academic students of Nahuatl, to be honest, who merrily pull the language to pieces apart and put it bak together again and never have a word to say about native speakers or their communities!). The truth is somewhere in the middle. If you ask me to give you a rigorous definition of where exactly that truth is, I may fumble and stumble, but it is still somewhere in the middle nonetheless.

Rather than any theoretical axiom to "calculate" where the right position lies, I think it is something that needs to be, and will be, worked out in practice, in real behaviours and real actions and the real social reactions these evoke and how society eventually comes to terms with itself on this matter. Indeed perhaps that is at least part of the answer: it is not that one side is simply right or wrong, but rather that the important thing is for the debate to proceed freely in the society until a consensus is reached. We can look at real-life cases to see how that has (or has not) happened in the long-term development of different language movements and what the consequences have been, and perhaps we may be able to draw some conclusions a posteriori. In any case we should definitely look at those cases and try to learn from them, rather than ignoring them and trusting in our own half-cooked theoretical assumptions to get us through (or make us feel good because "we did everything possible"). So I return to my first section heading in the end: Can we learn from each other (please)?

In the case of Nawat, and looking at what is really happening in the young yet relatively dynamic LR movement rather than over-theorizing on a flimsy basis, I would say that a very simple principle is at play which defies arithmetic calculation: people's conscience! Actually I think I said this in the post and didn't side-step the issue at all. Allow me briefly to quote myself:

"[O]ne can ask what relevance they have for members of the primary ... Nawat-speaking community.... While I agree that such questions are pertinent and need to be asked (repeatedly), I also would hold that we need to provide perceptive and imaginative answers, not fall back on simplistic, cliché'd assumptions of a complete disconnect between "native speakers" and "modern life".... For one thing we cannot generalize across the whole Pipil community because, just as elsewhere, the ability of the youngest generation to access education and modern technology to some extent is entirely different from the position of the oldest generation of native speakers.... Secondly, this is in any case going to change as time passes.... And thirdly, we are all aware of this issue, and realise its importance; and because we are aware of it, members of the "new language community" have both the capacity and the interest to do something about it by reaching out to the primary community...." [emphasis added] (to be continued)

Alan dijo...

[continued] Whether you foreboding could reflect a genuine potential danger is one thing; whether this is what is actually happening is quite another. And this is not only an issue affecting languages in the situation of Nawat; this debate was played out long ago among the Basques. Both extremes had their proponents but what emerged ultimately was a solution which represents a synthesis and a workable compromise. And it worked! But the "cuadro clínico" or "sintomología" of how that process played out was as described: a Stage I (in which conservative, backwards-loooking dogmas prevailed) was followed chronologically by a Stage II in which the excesses of that position came to be challenged (mostly by a new generation of people fed up with a lack of effective action and a ticking clock which caution and old remedies alone were not going to halt), raising a lot of dust and more than a little bitter argument, but when the dust subsided, and it did, the road was cleared and language recovery was ready to take off like a forest fire.

At the time, some people may have resented, and did, the high profile of some non-native speakers in the front seat, even though in reality the focus of those "newbies" as we might now call them was firmly set on giving the (old, traditional, inherited) language community, which had been whithering, a new lease on life. And they achieved it. And in the long term, el río, replenished, ha vuelto a su cauce: modern Basque is not something that has been alienated from the native speaker community, rather I would say that the community has "re-inherited" it. Go to the Basque countryside and there you will find "the natives" listening to Basque radio, watching Basque television, paying in Basque when they get on the bus, cheering together in Basque at sports events, talking to their children's teacher in Basque when they visit the school, fighting for their rights in Basque at demonstrations or asking to receive attention in Basque when they go into the town hall. Have they been invaded? Has their "ownership of their language" been stolen from them? Do they feel dispossessed as they reap the benefits of language recovery? Why not go ask them?!

Alan dijo...

Yes, you (and anyone else) are welcome to cite this giving a proper reference. No arrangements made so far for publication in a journal. Just reference the blog post I guess.