Hugo Us Álvarez
It reflects several different, and particular meaning-making forms of understanding the world. With the advent of the Internet and information technologies, Indigenous languages are conquering areas of expression and development like never before.
In many cases, this form of perceiving and comprehending the world pre-supposes a close relationship between man and nature, each being a different side of the same coin. The phrase La utz a wech?, which in the Maya K’iché language literally means “How is your balance?,” is the closest equivalent to “How are you?”. This substantial difference in meaning is a clear example of how the Maya, a people inextricably linked to the observation of the universe since remote times, view the world.
The Maya do not have a word for “month.” Instead, they use Iq’(moon), which reflects their lunar calendar, used since pre-Hispanic times. In the K’iché language, “door” translates as “uchijá”, literally “the mouth of the house”.
Given its impact as a tool for exchange and collaboration, the Internet opened the door to a number of initiatives that seek to revitalize Indigenous languages, without the barriers of traditional methods. Using this opportunity, the first “National Gathering of Indigenous Language Digital Activism” was organized in Guatemala in 2014, serving since as a venue for exchanging ideas and learning among organizations and individuals.
The use of Indigenous languages in public schools picks up slowly in the region. A comprehensive study conducted by UNESCO highlights the importance of using the learner’s mother tongue to increase learning effectiveness (greater achievement, less drop-out, etc.). In this sense, this engagement strategy implemented in Guatemala involves civil society organizations that promote native language teaching through YouTube videos, Indigenous language keyboards, health Apps, etc.”
The IDB joined this initiative in 2019, to contribute to this partnership between civil society and other development stakeholders in the region, and work towards the crucial matter of ensuring sustainability for Indigenous people in Guatemala. This is achieved through coordinated actions, aimed at the promotion and preservation of Indigenous languages.
The case of Guatemala not only illustrates the immense value of Indigenous languages for their people and mankind overall, but also its ever-increasing risk of becoming extinct. This, not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, but in other parts of the world as well. According to the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, over 40% of 6,700 Indigenous languages identified worldwide in 2016 are at risk of disappearing . In fact, UNESCO lists 2,500 languages as endangered, from which 199 have fewer than ten speakers, or have died out since 1950.
Of course, this situation is not accidental. It can be explained by looking back in history. For many years, governments promoted assimilation policies that sought to “integrate” or “absorb” Indigenous cultures into the dominant ethos. Thus, today, the only country in Latin America with an official Indigenous language is Paraguay, where Guaraní is their source of national pride.
In this sense, promoting interaction between the region’s different cultures is a goal made possible thanks to smart technologies, and the growing interest of government agencies, international cooperation organizations, and civil society, in partnering with Indigenous organizations to expand our vision of the world. These efforts are based on the countless opportunities emanating from the rich diversity of Latin America and the Caribbean.
 UNESCO, Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning (2008).
A Network of Information and Exchange for the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples (2018)
Hugo Us Álvarez
He is our Civil Society Liaison Coordinator in Guatemala and a Senior Specialist in Social Development at the IDB Country Office in that country (CGU/GDI). Of Maya K’iché descent, Hugo holds a BA degree in Economics and a Master’s in Political Science. He has also worked as a consultant for governments and international agencies and as a researcher in development and ethnicity matters.