Mexico schools embrace native tongues
Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau
Mar. 15, 2006
CHIMALAPA DE ACAXOCHITLÁN, Mexico - With its bare walls, battered desks and worn
but well-swept floors, the classroom where Floridalia Guzmán teaches looks a lot
like any other school in Mexico. But it doesn't sound like one.
"Xi tlakuiloka nochi tlen istoke ipan ininchinanko," Guzmán said in Nahuatl, the
language of the Aztecs, as her third-graders scrambled to get out their
notebooks. "Make a list of things in your community," she repeated, this time in
The children don't understand much Spanish, but that's OK. At the Benito Juarez
Bilingual School, teachers introduce the national language slowly, a few words
at a time. By sixth grade, the children will be bilingual. In the United States,
bilingual programs such as these have ignited fierce debates as schools search
for the best way to teach migrant children who don't speak English. But in
Mexico, where 7 percent of the population speaks an indigenous language, the
government has embraced bilingual education.
Mexico's experience could offer important lessons for the United States, Mexican
educators say. Until 15 years ago, Mexican schools enforced a strict
Spanish-only policy, much like the English-only education rule adopted in 2000
Mexico eventually declared the policy a failure, saying it was creating
generations of confused students and adding to poverty and discrimination.
"It didn't work," said Gudelio Treviño Cruz, director of indigenous education in
Hidalgo. "And if you (Americans) fill your students with nothing but English,
you're going to have the same problems we had."
Nationwide, about 1.2 million Mexican children attend bilingual classes. The
federal government publishes textbooks in 55 of the country's 63 languages and
actively recruits teachers who are native speakers. Bilingual education is even
guaranteed in the constitution.
Mix of tongues
María Rosa Martínez scrunched up her nose at the sentence in her notebook,
trying desperately to remember how to translate it to Spanish.
"In the water, there are . . . " she trailed off as her fifth-grade classmates
crowded around, racking their brains for the word for axoxovili.
One made a swirling motion with his hand.
"Whirlpools!" shouted someone in Spanish. "Yeah!" his classmates exclaimed.
"I like science better," she said. "Spanish is hard."
Still, Martínez and her classmates are light-years ahead of the third-graders.
They slip easily from Nahuatl to Spanish and already are reading history lessons
in the national language.
In Chimalapa, 75 miles from Mexico City, most children enter school without
knowing a lick of Spanish. So for the first few years, the teachers lecture
mostly in Nahuatl (pronounced NAH-WATT).
The children learn to read and write in Nahuatl first, reading from Nahuatl
storybooks and sounding out the language's impossibly long words, such as
Math and science also are taught in Nahuatl, but the textbooks are in Spanish.
So teachers introduce vocabulary words like "pistil" and "stamen"
in both languages simultaneously.
"If I speak to them only in Spanish, they won't understand," Guzmán said.
"So I try to mix it in. The idea is to get the information across, not just
teach them Spanish."
Arizona used to have similar bilingual classes but eliminated most of them after
voters passed the English-only education law. Most of the state's 154,000
English-language learners now attend "English immersion" classes where they are
taught in English.
Of Arizona's 155,000 English-learners, 2,956 remained in bilingual education in
the 2004-05 school year because their parents obtained waivers based on their
children's needs. The waivers must be sought each year.
Once children pass an English-proficiency test, they may attend bilingual
Meanwhile, a federal court fined Arizona $1 million a day for failing to put
enough money into teaching immigrant children English. The fines stopped March
3, when state lawmakers approved a plan that is now awaiting a federal judge's
ruling. All told, the fines reached $21 million.
Mexico wasn't always so tolerant of its native languages. For centuries,
Mexico's mixed-race majority tried to impose Spanish on students at the expense
of Zapotec, Totonac, Chatino and other tongues.
As Indians moved to Mexican cities in search of work in the 20th century,
education officials redoubled their efforts to "Mexicanize" them.
"All the teachers were from outside our communities," said María Antonio
Tolentino, who now teaches the Hñahñu language in the town of San Esteban
Huehuetla. "When we spoke our language, the teachers thought we were talking bad
about them, so they punished us."
The policy created an atmosphere of shame, people who grew up under the system
"If your language is prohibited, you feel like less of a person," Treviño said.
"It makes you reluctant to participate in public life. You get stuck in this
culture of poverty, and there's no way of getting out."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, things began to change.
After Mexican leaders botched rescue efforts during the 1985 Mexico City
earthquake, citizens nationwide began questioning their government and its
policies. The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas state and activists such as Nobel
Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu cast the spotlight on Indian rights in Latin
The first bilingual programs were started in 1992. The government started
printing textbooks in other languages in 1994.
"It was part of a recognition that we are a multicultural society and that those
cultures need to be valued," said Rubén Viveros, head of Mexico's Indigenous
In August 2001, Mexican lawmakers amended the constitution to include a raft of
new rights for Indians. One of the amendments requires the government to
"guarantee and increase levels of scholarship, favoring bilingual and
Mexico now has 21,046 bilingual programs in elementary schools nationwide and
more than 52,500 teachers teaching in them. In Hidalgo state, where Chimalapa is
located, about 30 percent of all students are in bilingual schools, Treviño
The government's textbook department now churns out colorful paperbacks in
Amuzga, Ch'ol, Tlapaneca, Mayo and dozens of other languages. "What we learned
is you have to teach children in the language they already know,"
said Eleuterio Olarte Tiburcio, head linguist for the Indigenous Education
Department. "If your goal is to impose your language on children, whether it's
Spanish or English . . . then your objective is no longer education."
Back at the Benito Juárez School, a group of fifth-graders practiced for a
contest for singing of the national anthem scheduled for the next day.
Eleven schools would be participating.
Like everything at the school, the competition would be bilingual. So instead of
the rousing refrain "Mexicanos, al grito de guerra," the children bellowed the
Nahuatl version: "Ihcuca yaotl tenochnotzas mexihca."
Until last year, singing the national anthem in a language other than Spanish
was a crime punishable by a $4,300 fine or three days in jail. But in July,
Congress made it legal to sing the anthem in indigenous languages and even
directed the government to come up with official translations.
Like bilingual education, it is a sign that Mexico is coming to respect its
homegrown languages, Treviño said.
"In the beginning, there was resistance to what we were doing," Treviño said.
"People said, 'How are we ever going to teach these children to be Mexicans?'
But it has worked. We're a multilingual country, but we're still one country."