The Miami Herald
November 30, 1998
Bolivia's boost for bilingualism
Ancestral languages are keys to education reform

             LUCIEN CHAUVIN
             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 Aymara
             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 a
             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

             Language shock

             ``One of the main causes for poor educational levels is the fact that many families,
             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 years, the
             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 task.
             ``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, with the
             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 or
             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 the
             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 tool,''
             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. ``We
             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.''

             Parental resistance

             The major problem is coming from an unexpected source -- parents.

             ``A difficulty we have found is among the parents, who place an extremely high
             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 to
             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, with many
             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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