Development, language revitalization, and culture

The case of the Mayan languages of Guatemala, and their relevance for African languages

Language documentation efforts tend to target the most highly endangeredlanguages. However, language endangerment is a complex phenomenon emergingfrom social, political and other power imbalances in multilingual languageecologies. Long-term solutions for addressing endangerment must thereforeaddress these imbalances at their root causes. Here we share observationsand experiences from the Guatemalan context in the hope of opening lines ofsimilar inquiry into African contexts where many languages might be characterizedas threatened but not endangered. We cast doubt on common top-downapproaches to language support that see bilingual education and linguisticpatrimony as strong sustaining forces. Rather, we suggest that providing developmentservices (especially, healthcare) in linguistically and culturally responsibleways is a much more effective language maintenance strategy. Rather thanlanguage development, we advocate development through language. We shareexperiences working with Wuqu’Kawoq: Maya Health Alliance, a healthcareNGO serving Kaqchikel-speaking areas in Guatemala, as support for thismodel.

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