“Language is not a problem unless it is used as a basis for discrimination, but it has in fact been so used as far back as we have records.”
Einar Haugen, 1973, The Curse of Babel, p. 54
The equal value of all systems of communication is one of the fundamental principles of the disciplines of Linguistics and Anthropology, and is also recognized in multiple international declarations on human rights. Yet this concept remains far from accepted in daily social and political practices around the world. Language diversity is used as a basis for discrimination today as it has been throughout recorded history, as noted by Haugen in the classic quote above. Discrimination against the speakers of minoritized languages constitutes a key factor in language endangerment and shift. As a scholar in Education and Linguistics, my work focuses on drawing attention to the social inequalities created around Indigenous languages and exploring context-appropriate ways to resist and counter them. I am also especially interested in how education, as an important site of socialization, can counter or reproduce discrimination against certain speakers and languages.
Diidxazá students displaying the learning materials they have created at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, Tehuantepec campus Zapotec program.
During my doctoral research in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico (a 17-month ethnographic study conducted between 2013-2015), I met many people who had been influenced away from speaking their heritage language (in this case Diidxazá, or Isthmus Zapotec [zai]) due to the practices, discourses, and prejudices promoted in school settings. Although current official policy in Mexico recognizes the rights of Indigenous language speakers, there remains a great deal of work to do to change discriminatory practices on the ground. Through longitudinal observations and participation in Diidxazá education initiatives, I am attempting to understand the social dynamics within which endangered languages are used (or, increasingly, not used), and the influences of formal education in these processes.
Currently, I am excited to be a visiting researcher at LACITO while continuing to analyze data on the ethnolinguistic context in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in particular the discursive and metaphorical means through which Diidxazá communicative practices are (de)valued. It is also wonderful to have the opportunity to meet with Linguists and Anthropologists who work in many different parts of the world and to compare experiences and perspectives relative to language endangerment and ethnolinguistic research. Although it is daunting to note the frequency with which Indigenous language speakers are still subjected to discrimination around the world, there are many positive changes occuring through multilingual education and other human rights initiatives — and much more that can be done in the future.