Jesus Salinas, a linguist and Nahnu Indian from the state of Hidalgo, is using computers to help Indians create a written tradition out of their oral languages, thereby preserving and enriching their indigenous language and culture and enriching their children's education.
Jesus initially studied to be a teacher in his native state of Hidalgo. He taught primary school for a few years, directed one for five years, then went to the state of Oaxaca to become a teacher in a secondary school. Pursuing an interest in computing and linguistics, Jesus went to the University of Florida. He became a field assistant and eventual co-author of studies of the Otomie (Nahnu) Indians with an American anthropologist, and he has since published ethhnographies of Nahnu culture in both English and Spanish. The long years that Jesus invested in mastering computing, language, and education, combined with his commitment to and sense for Mexico's Indian cultures, have now amply laid the foundation from which he is launching this fresh approach to cultural survival.
Indian children typically speak their indigenous tongue in the community, but learn to read and write in Spanish in school. Even with Mexico now encouraging the preservation of indigenous culture, the school curriculum reflects a serious obstacle: most indigenous languages have no standard written form, or even a standard alphabet. Spanish therefore becomes the language of all nonverbal communication, leaving only a very small, and diminishing, role for many millions of Mexicans' mother tongues. Wide distribution of Martin Luther's Bible translation, thanks to the printing press, led to a standardized German; Jesus sees that the latest printing technology can play a similar role for Indian languages. Computers are an extremely useful tool for creating unified alphabets among different dialects, preparing dictionaries, producing texts quickly and inexpensively, and more. At his Workshop in Indian Languages in Oaxaca, Jesus trains representatives of Indian groups to use the computer in these ways so that they may begin recording their language before it becomes extinct. Once a group standardizes its alphabet and grammar, they can begin producing the body of work that will be used to teach reading and writing to their children. This will allow these children to learn to read and write in their native tongue, a far easier and more satisfying exercise than to learn these skills through a foreign language. Most of the new texts will be produced by translating Spanish books into the new written language, but Jesus also has his workshop set up so that anyone in Oaxaca can write original works on the computer, from local histories to family recipes.
There are 56 different ethnic groups in Mexico that together compose approximately an eighth of the national population. Each group speaks a different language, or a different dialect of a common language, but few read or write in that language. This is primarily because the language has never been written down. The education system in Mexico makes provisions for bilingual education, but since most Indian languages have no texts, students learn Spanish exclusively. Perceived, therefore, as the language of knowledge, Spanish increasingly pre-empts the indigenous language among younger generations, leading to a general decline in the vitality of Mexico's indigenous cultures. For the smallest groups, this waning influence spells extinction within a few generations. The larger indigenous peoples find little safety in numbers: their languages are generally splintered into various dialects lacking a common written tradition, and are likewise in danger of dying from lack of use. These endangered languages are more than curious artifacts. They embody the ways these cultures have learned to think and the values that undergird them. Languages need to be standardized, students need to be taught how to read and write in their own language, as well as Spanish, and a wealth of new materials need to be produced that entice and inspire students to exercise their new skills.
Through his Workshop in Indian Languages, Jesus has already trained representatives of the Mazatec, Chinantec, Amuzgo, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Ayuuk ethnic groups how to begin standardizing their languages using specialized computer programs. Jesus leaves the method of standardization to the ethnic group. Some first unify the language, then write. Others first write and later reach an agreement on a unique and practical alphabet and grammar. In both cases, the speakers themselves make the decisions. Jesus's center encourages and facilitates the process. Jesus contacts different communities and explains his program and invites representatives to his center in Oaxaca. There, Jesus and his wife train the representatives on the techniques that will simplify the process of recording their language, such as compiling a language's first dictionary, or incorporating, more easily than traditional typesetting, signs and symbols unique to a particular language. The center also operates as a community writing center and a small-sized publishing house, producing new texts in less time, and with less effort and cost, than traditional printing. The computers at the center have been donated by IBM and Apple. "We are in an age of technological advancements, and just because we are Indians, we are not exempt from these achievements," says Jesus. Jesus now wants his new trainees to begin working with other indigenous groups in danger of losing their language before anyone can record it: the Chochos, Ixcatecs, and Cuicatecs in the state of Oaxaca, and the Kilimas, Kimiais, and Paipais in the state of Baja, California Norte.