Online Challenges to Save Indigenous Languages in the Americas

Rick Kearns

Saving indigenous languages by recording them and then issuing a challenge online has inspired thousands of people to reciprocate by posting videos onto YouTube in the last year; the project has also created two currents of participants from south to north and vice-versa.

The southern effort began more recently in 2015 with the Indigenous Language Challenge (El Reto de las Lenguas Indigenas in Spanish) from Peru, and was created by Peru’s Ministry of Culture to recognize and celebrate the 17 Native languages in the country.

According to a press statement issued by the Ministry in May, the goal of their Challenge was to “allow people to reflect on the importance of continuing speaking their language and of how if they stopped communicating in that language it would be a great loss.”

The ministry videos have been viewed by more than 38,000 people since February and have reached viewers all over Peru as well as some in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York in the U.S., and in the countries of Chile, Italy, France, England, Finland and Holland.

One of the responses to the Ministry’s challenge was the Quechua Penn Initiative, a group of students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania who created the organization as an “Initiative to promote Quechua language and Andean Culture in Southeastern Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Area).”

The Quechua Penn group posted their online challenge on April 29 by sending greetings and other comments in Quechua to viewers from all over the world.

Director Americo Mendoza-Mori, a Professor of Quechua and Spanish at Penn, explained that the initiative has many benefits.

“Students like to learn the language. There are many advantages for a Quechua language learner: no gender, no irregular verbs.”

“I have some students that are majoring in linguistics,” Mendoza-Mori continued, “and they also enjoy finding how Quechua influences the Spanish dialect spoken in the Andean countries. Or, to find out that even words that are popular in English come from Quechua (i.e. Quinoa, Jerky, Llama, etc).”

He also added that he teaches the language “through culture” as a way of providing context and that his course challenges stereotypes of indigenous languages.

“Sometimes even educated people ask me if Quechua is a dialect of Spanish, or they may think that it is a dead language (we have 8-10 million speakers),” he continued. “They are surprised when I tell them that around 10,000 people speak Quechua in New York and that we have some Ecuadorian speakers in the Philadelphia area.”

While the project from Peru will continue throughout the year, the first Challenge started in the United States in 2014. The 2014 Indigenous Language Challenge group’s Facebook page features challenges in Lakota, Cherokee, Dineh and other languages from the North and includes a recent post about an Indigenous Language Video Contest sponsored by the Native American Language Lab of the University of Texas at Arlington.

In the meantime, the Peru based challenge has expanded to include indigenous languages from throughout the Americas. Mendoza-Mori noted that one of the 600 viewers of the Quechua Penn video was from Mexico who has brought in languages from that country and Central America.

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truthgiver's picture
Submitted by truthgiver on
Wake up indigineous peoples!!! It's time to reclaim your heritage and protect your culture...

naboria's picture
Submitted by naboria on
Reporter's note: there are 47 indigenous languages in Peru. The Ministry of Culture press release included the line: "Indigenous Peruvian languages or variations: 17" It was meant to be understood that they had received videos of 17 of those languages.