Special to The Herald
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- When Jose Carbajal was a boy growing up in the Bolivian
highlands, he was told to forget Aymara, the indigenous language spoken by his
family. He was forced to learn Spanish as part of the government's effort to
``civilize'' its indigenous population.
Carbajal never forgot his Aymara, and today, with a group of other native
speakers, he is using his ancestral language to develop textbooks for children who
speak only Aymara.
Carbajal is part of the government's program to create a bilingual education
program in the Andean nation's three main indigenous languages -- Aymara,
Guarani and Quechua. Bolivia has 29 other indigenous languages, but most are
spoken by only a handful of people.
``When I was young, the education reform [in 1955] had as a goal eradicating
indigenous languages in order to modernize the country,'' Carbajal said. ``It took
us nearly half a century to realize that this was a failure. Bilingual education gives us
a chance to better educate children, as well as preserve indigenous cultures.''
With nearly 60 percent of the country's children starting school speaking
language other than Spanish, Bolivia's official language, Education Ministry officials
say bilingual education is the only way to reverse the country's dismal education
``One of the main causes for poor educational levels is the fact that many
especially in rural areas, speak only an indigenous language,'' Education Minister
Tito Hoz de Vila said. ``When children start school, it is a shock for them to learn
in Spanish, a language they do not speak, and they simply stop attending classes.
With bilingual education, we hope to deal with this shock by teaching them
Spanish little by little.''
Bilingual education is part of a larger education reform. In the past three
Education Ministry has replaced the single nationwide school district with 271
independent districts. The ministry has been streamlined, a system of merit pay is
being introduced, and a new curriculum, which includes bilingual education as a
key component, is now in place in 4,500 of the country's 14,500 primary schools.
Amalia Anaya, vice minister of education, said the reform is a daunting
``Historically, education in Bolivia has been completely inefficient and inadequate,''
she said. ``We still have many problems to overcome.''
Chief among them: Only 17 percent of school-age children start classes,
percentage even lower in rural areas where only indigenous languages are spoken.
Spanish comes later
As part of the new curriculum, students who speak only Aymara, Guarani
Quechua will be taught to read and write in their native language. Spanish is
introduced after the first year, and by the third grade, students should be reading
and writing at an equal level in both Spanish and their original tongue.
Rodolfo Garcia Antelo, who is part of the education reform program within
ministry, said the bilingual education program in Bolivia is unique in that it is not
using materials translated from Spanish into the indigenous languages, but creating
texts based on customs and traditions of the country's native peoples.
``We are using stories and myths parents tell their children as a literacy
Garcia said. ``The students not only identify with what they are learning, but it
helps preserve indigenous cultures. Bolivia is a multiethnic and multicultural
country, and we need to see this as a strength, not a weakness.''
The program was originally tested as a pilot plan between 1989 and 1994.
had great results during the pilot phase, but it was in a very reduced number of
schools,'' Anaya said. ``Like all experiments, the results may be good in the
laboratory but it is a different story in reality. We still have a long way to go before
the program is fully accepted.''
The major problem is coming from an unexpected source -- parents.
``A difficulty we have found is among the parents, who place an extremely
value on Spanish,'' Anaya said. ``They have suffered discrimination because they
did not know Spanish, and they send their children to school so they won't have
the same problems. There is a level of resistance when they find out that their
children are not learning Spanish.''
The Rev. Carlos Moreno, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and former principal
of a rural school, said a key difficulty is that in rural areas children, particularly
girls, are pulled out of school when they are about 10 years old to work at home
or on the farm.
Anaya said the ministry recognizes the problems and is working on strategies
combat them. One such plan is the creation of local parent-run school boards.
``We need to start with the recognition that we are a diverse society,
cultures and languages,'' Anaya said. ``We need to translate this recognition into
effective community participation that helps design a curriculum best suited for our
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