“Public policy cannot abandon its obligation to train teachers in the language of the community in which they teach”

    The provision of educational services for people belonging to indigenous groups and afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean has historically ignored them. The cultural homogenization has influenced education systems, how curricula are developed, and in what language classes are taught.

    Today, the debate is focused on the promotion of local languages as one of the most relevant aspects to make the right to intercultural bilingual education (ethno-education, “own education”, among other denominations) that is equitable and of quality a reality. This vision implies revaluing cultural and linguistic diversity, highlighting the different socio-cultural identities, and making the convergence of indigenous knowledge and traditional education.

    Despite numerous national efforts, the indigenous population still has higher illiteracy rates, lower participation in education and higher dropout rates than their non-indigenous peers. These indicators are co-related to poverty, geographical distance between households and educational centers, early entry into the labor market and subsistence activities, among other factors. If we add that curricula and textbooks rarely incorporate the elements of indigenous and Afro-descendant cultures, for these people it is always an uphill struggle.

    With these ever-present challenges, beginning in 2020, the Global Monitoring Report on Education (known as the GEM Report), which UNESCO publishes annually, is adding a new focus on comprehensively investigating one region each year, starting with the Latin America and the Caribbean region by analyzing educational inclusion.

    The “other ethnicities”

    The Argentine researcher, Silvina Corbetta, has been invited by UNESCO, along with other experts to work on the GEM regional report. During her career, Corbetta has explored how the “other ethnic groups” have experienced educational inclusion and exclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Silvina is a political scientist specialized in environmental education and has a doctorate in social sciences. She is a full-time professor of Intercultural Bilingual Education, specializing in Quichua, at the National University of Santiago del Estero. We talked to her about some findings in her research for UNESCO.

    Who are the people who currently belong to native populations and Afro-descendants in the region, and what is their educational situation?

    Speaking of the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Latin America means referring to some 154 million people, almost a third of the inhabitants of our countries (28.4%).

    In the case of the indigenous population, despite the improvement observed in the illiteracy rate, there are still gaps to the detriment of this group. In all the countries for which information is available, it is women who have the highest percentage of illiteracy, except for Nicaragua, where the reverse is true. Rural indigenous women are the most disadvantaged. In the case of the population of African descent, the available indicators show that they are more disadvantaged than the non-Afro-descendent population. When this indicator is disaggregated by sex, it can be seen that in countries where schooling is unfavourable for the people of African descent, it is men who are in the worst situation. Moreover, as the population grows older, illiteracy is higher for both populations compared to those who do not identify themselves as indigenous or African descendants.

    Both indigenous and Afro-descendent people face the most significant difficulties in all the indicators analyzed. Despite of indicators improvement, it does not manage to overcome ethnic-racial asymmetries in educational inclusion.

    How are States in the region trying to organize themselves to provide educational services that incorporate the knowledge and languages of these populations?

    The States have generated actions to address the educational right of indigenous peoples and those of African descent through Intercultural Bilingual Education, own-education, and/or ethno-education. Any of these three names refer to education that – in different ways and depending on the country – the indigenous peoples and people of African descent want for themselves and that the States have the obligation to guarantee.

    What are the main challenges facing the States, curriculum development specialists, schools and teachers in incorporating local languages into the educational process?

    Strengthening and improving the overall quality of the education system for those whose rights that have historically been violated is more than a critical challenge; it is an obligation that cannot be postponed. Public policy cannot abandon its obligation to train teachers in the language of the community in which they teach, so that there is real inclusion of children in the educational process according to their language and culture.

    Among the most common challenges in incorporating local languages into the education process are: the insufficient training of teachers in local languages and on the system of knowledge of the peoples, the lack of relevant teaching materials, the inequality of teaching categories according to the level of recruitment of indigenous and non-indigenous teachers. It is critical for the systems to seek to generate evaluation instruments, when they have not yet managed to comply with the previous stages of educational inclusion, which also places a strain on communities and their families.

    Another challenge for States and their education systems is the enormous importance of disaggregating the national education budget and making visible the percentages of annual budgetary allocations, so that they are effectively assigned to the indigenous and Afro-descendent population to revitalize languages and strengthen their knowledge systems. The inclusion of these sectors in terms of their culture and/or language depends on efficient and effective States to fulfil their responsibilities in all dimensions of education policy (teacher recruitment and career progression, pre-service training and continuous professional development in language and culture, production of teaching materials, infrastructure, etc.).

    Within the framework of the International Mother Language Day, I would like to emphasize the demand to States to include, in national population censuses, a question on mother tongues, indigenous languages or languages spoken by the entire population. This information is an essential input to guaranteeing the linguistic rights of peoples and to strengthening research on their degree of vitality to design appropriate public policies.

    What are the effects, for society in general and for these specific groups, of incorporating mother tongues in education? Have you found any experiences that have drawn your attention to their results?

    A society that accompanies the struggle of indigenous peoples to incorporate their mother tongues into education is a society that has put language parity on its horizon. It is a society that aspires to be more just.

    Something interesting is happening in El Salvador, despite the State’s delay in being part of the process of aspiring to create a just society as I have just described. There is more significant mobilization by or demand in, communities where their indigenous language is spoken less, which is a concern for its revitalization, and there is a demand for courses in indigenous language and culture by teachers in urban areas to ‘interculturalize’ the education system.

    These situations reinforce the need for action by the State to ensure that there exists an adequate response to what indigenous peoples want for themselves and to implement an intercultural approach for all across the education system.

    The need to recover a sense of identity on the part of communities and the interest in indigenous languages and cultures on the part of non-indigenous teachers in urban areas – there exist opportunities to be seized.