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Are Costa Rica’s Indigenous Languages Doomed to Disappear?

Written by Marisol

In a few words, it has been known to happen. The Chorotega and Huetar languages, which were spoken in the Nicoya peninsula and in the Central Valley, respectively, disappeared between the 18th and 19th centuries. They were displaced by Spanish. But, they were not the only ones in Costa Rica. The language of the votos, which inhabited the current San Carlos; the Quepo language, spoken on the Pacific coast; and the Chánguina that predominated in the southern region (currently Panamanian territory), among others, also became extinct without leaving any further record of their existence.

This same path has been followed by other languages ​​that, although still have a minimal presence in the life of their communities, have already stopped being used conversationally. These are the cases of Boruca and Brorán Terraba. Just greetings and some words and phrases that their heirs use when speaking Spanish, subsist from both languages.

The only indigenous languages ​​that are considered alive in the country, due to their use in everyday communication are Cabécar, Bribri, Malecu, Gnobe and Buglere. However, they are all in the same situation that caused other native languages ​​becoming extinct.

If concrete actions are not taken to stop and reverse the process of displacement that Spanish and Spanish-Costa Rican culture have imposed for centuries, sooner or later, these languages ​​will also disappear.

Parents and grandparents should speak again to the new generations in their own language
For Carlos Sánchez Avendaño, professor at the School of Philology, Linguistics and Literature (EFL) and researcher at the Institute of Linguistic Research (INIL) of the UCR, one of the factors that would help a lot to stop this process is that parents and grandparents speak again to the new generations in their own language. He mentions the case of the Malecus, in the Guatuso area of ​​Alajuela, where he has counted 3 people under the age of 20 who speak Malecu, thanks to the fact that their families insisted on transmitting the language to them.

“There is also the impact of the educational system that, in some way, has recently served to give new value to the languages ​​and cultures in these communities. In the past it contributed to displace them. Nowadays it still contributes to displace them, but it also serves to acknowledge them a a little The entire language policy of the country aimed at making these populations more visible, their rights, their wealth, could eventually have an impact,” Sánchez added.

According to the specialist, indigenous communities see their languages ​​as a guarantee of their differentiated identity, in addition to that of being Costa Rican. Besides, they represent a link with their ancestors, with their culture, with diversity and reinforce their concept of historical continuity.

“These languages ​​are linked to different worldviews, to different ways of conceptualizing reality. That, as a linguist, seems extremely exciting to me, to realize how we find different ways of conceptualizing reality in languages ​​and how we find clues from the past in them”, he highlights.

According to the researcher, the importance of revitalizing the indigenous languages ​​should lay on the communities that speak them. They should be the ones that head the process. In this sense, he considers it inappropriate to promote the conservation of these languages ​​as a museum objects, isolated from the reality that the communities that speak them live.

A more diverse country

The contribution of indigenous languages ​​to the development of the country does not lie in the supposed benefits that they have given to the Spanish-Costa Rican culture. They are part of a conglomeration of very different people, with different worldviews, varied languages ​​and dissimilar cultural manifestations, which translates into a more diverse country, with more options, richer and more attractive. All this, Sánchez sums it up in the phrase “there is taste in diversity.”

“The revitalization processes belong to the communities. That is something we sometimes forget and we have to keep in mind. It helps a lot when there is a national, linguistic, educational, cultural policy at the national level that contributes to promote this diversity and to make those languages ​​visible, but it will not be enough or the fundamental factor, because the fundamental factor is the interest of the community.

It is not only that, because the purpose can be misinterpreted and thus believe that the same communities are to blame and lose their languages. The reality is that the communities respond to an adaptive need” Sánchez clarifies.

In other words, the indigenous communities may be very interested in preserving their languages, but they also need to learn Spanish to have access to education, medical care and various administrative procedures. What the researcher regrets is that this adaptive need has implied that they lose their language, when ideally speakers should be completely competent in both Spanish and their ancestral language. For this to be possible, it is necessary to promote respect for the bilingualism of these communities and their bicultural particularity, an issue in which there is a long way to go.

A multicultural and multilingual country

“There is a very nice discourse that states that we are a multicultural and multilingual country. We love to tell that to everyone, but it is nothing but empty words in everyday relationships. It is very common for these indigenous communities to face discrimination, harassment and ridicule for their linguistic and cultural differences in territories where there is daily interaction with people who are not from those communities. That has a much bigger effect because it occurs in everyday life.

Sánchez emphasized that “If as a young man, for example, what I live is discrimination, people make fun of me for how I am, how I speak, where I come from. All that is going to have a negative impact on my identity and on my desire to retain certain characteristics of my ancestors, such as the language. So, we would have to change that prevalent culture throughout the country for a culture of appreciation for diversity”.


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