In 1999, UNESCO designated February 21 as International Mother Language Day. Tomorrow, February 20, Oaxaca begins her own celebration of Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna 2013 with a 2-day conference.
The issue of “lenguas maternas” has a particular resonance in Oaxaca, as the state is home to 16 distinct ethnolinguistic groups: Amuzgos, Chatino, Chinanteco, Chocho, Chontal, Cuicateco, Huave, Ixcateco, Mazateco, Mixe, Mixteco, Náhuatl, Popoloca, Triqui, Zapoteco, and Zoque. As anyone who has visited the villages of Oaxaca has discovered, sometimes the abuelos and abuelas only speak their native language, not Spanish.
However, as Ernestina Gaitán Cruz notes in an article in sinembargo.mx, most of these indigenous languages lack an alphabet, having been passed from one generation to another through an oral tradition, and because these “Mother Tongues” are not taught in the schools, a significant number of these languages are in danger of becoming extinct.
Oaxaca is not alone. From the article, Indigenous Youth Step up to Protect their Roots:
UNESCO estimates that every two weeks, one language disappears from the world.
Education systems have historically played a large part in the disappearance of indigenous languages, sometimes even forcing their extinction by severely punishing and shaming children for speaking native tongues or expressing indigenous identity in any way.
In some communities where a large portion of the population speaks only the native language, another issue arises: access to important information on topics such as health care, employment opportunities, legal rights and public services.
And, it isn’t just a particular community that suffers, as The Endangered Languages Project explains, The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information.
One of the missions of the Centro Académico y Cultural San Pablo in the city of Oaxaca is to document, study, and preserve the indigenous languages of Oaxaca. The center includes a library, offers language classes, and will be hosting several events during Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna 2013.