» “The loss of a tongue is a social, cultural, and even spiritual problem”
20.02.2013 - UNESCO Office in Santiago

“The loss of a tongue is a social, cultural, and even spiritual problem”

© CNCA Chile / Javier Godoy

Interview with Viki Haoa Cardinali

María Virginia Haoa is one of the founders of the Rapa Nui Language Academy, and is in charge of its Immersion Programme, which teaches this indigenous Polynesian language to children from kindergarten through to fourth grade on Rapa Nui - also known as Easter Island, a Chilean island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2012 Haoa was named as a Living Human Treasure by Chile’s National Council for Culture and the Arts, a figure supported by UNESCO, because of her the efforts that to maintain oral expressions and traditions by preparing texts on nature, history, poetry and children’s stories in the Rapa Nui language.

For a long time Rapa Nui was not taught in schools. When and how did this change come about?
The Rapa Nui language was never taught in schools when formal education started to be implemented on the island, in 1934. When classes in the language became a part of the curriculum, in 1976, 77% of children were native speakers. At that time, few people realised that Rapa Nui students were not learning because they did not understand Spanish, and this situation was not rectified until the vernacular language started to be introduced at the island’s only school.

Before 1975, classroom Rapa Nui teaching was not on the Chilean state’s agenda. In those days, the Polynesian Rapa Nui language was rather silenced within formal education, and I like to think of that as a form of immersion teaching in Spanish for effective learning of the de-contextualised content that students were expected to learn.

The situation became evident in the 1980s, when less than 10% of Rapa Nui students used the language to communicate at the school - an alert for the status of the Rapa Nui tongue. In light of this danger sign, proposals were drawn up for immersion teaching in the native language, and that is what we are currently working on.

What is the language’s current situation in education on the island?

Currently only one school on the island has a Rapa Nui language immersion course, and even this programme often faces shortfalls of personnel that is trained to teach with love and with a true commitment. For instance, the immersion programme has remained stalled at fourth grade since 2000, when it ought to already cover the whole of basic education. Conversely, given the school management’s concern with students’ performance on the Chilean Education Ministry National Learning Achievement Assessment System (SIMCE) tests, Spanish-speaking teachers have begun to be included in the immersion programme.

Why do you say that the loss of a tongue is a social problem?
It is a social, cultural, and even spiritual problem. This is because our own Polynesian language, Rapa Nui, is devalued when it has no functionality in its community’s socio-economic, cultural, and spiritual development, when state institutions work only in Spanish, when most tourism is currently Spanish-based, and when the influx of Spanish speakers has grown considerably over recent decades - all of these factors have led to socio-cultural changes in the Rapa Nui community. Families have sought to send their children down different roads to their own in the hope of improving their quality of life, without their mother tongue, and that has to do with the soul, with feelings, with the relationships between people and with the ecosystem. There is a different world view, which adds richness and also exalts other cultures.

If it does not cross all of the strata of our community, our tongue could fall into disuse - just as many languages have become extinct through a lack of awareness and loyalty. Awareness is a necessity, and our language must not be seen as inferior to Spanish; it must be endowed with the same benefits and importance, even if it is only spoken by a minority, so that it can be enriched with cross-pollination to incorporate technology and other fields of knowledge.

I could not stop thinking about the health of our own Rapa Nui language, without mentioning the irreversible effects and phenomena of globalization. This directly affects the cosmic visions of peoples, their behaviour vis a vis the ecosystem, and indeed, linguistics. Globalisation came so fast that we were not ready for the inter-cultural changes that it brought changes that overtook us because we lacked adequate human resources and economic support.

We must think again about how to address this linguistic situation from the basis of our families, and we must mutually support our brethren with other Polynesian language abroad, who are going through similar experiences that can guide us. Creating support networks so as to keep on working and exchanging experiences and actions taken to preserve and bolster our language.

After studying medical technology on the mainland, you returned to the island and met children who no longer spoke Rapa Nui. It was then that you took the decision to study education. What role does education play in rescuing indigenous languages?
I chose medical technology as a profession, but as years went by I started to realise how small a contribution I was making for our language with my work in the laboratory of the local hospital. At some personal cost I abandoned my profession and became a student once again, taking a distance learning course on basic general education with the Universidad de Playa Ancha, in Valparaíso. Children are our hope for the future, for the continuation of our Polynesian language, so we have to teach them and try to redress the current situation.

I drew up the proposal for the immersion programme on a study visit to Berlin in 1997, but the idea first came to me in 1990, when I attended an education conference for all the World’s indigenous peoples in Hamilton, New Zealand. That trip allowed me to visit the nurseries using the Maori language, which are generally set up alongside a marae (a large area where the Maori people and elders meet to discuss their concerns and shared issues). I also visited the country’s Kurakaupapa schools, where the Maori group’s Polynesian language lives on through teaching to their children. After attending conferences on Polynesian languages in Tahiti (1992), Hawai’i (1993), and Aotearoa (New Zealand), acquiring new experiences and observing the communities, and then spending time studying abroad in Berlin (1997), I felt that the time had come to present a proposal for the immersion programme as part of the bilingual inter-cultural education reform that was already being implemented by the Ministry of Education, in 1996.

Your association celebrates Rapa Nui Language Day in November, and the UN commemorates International Mother Tongue Day on 21 February. What do you think is the best way to mark these dates?
We started celebrating the day in November 1991. Since then, it has been held every year. It has seen an enthusiastic response from the community, and the island’s two new schools have got involved.

We benefit hugely from celebrating Rapa Nui Language Day and International Mother Tongue Day (21 February). However, 21 February falls outside of the school year, and the celebration ought to be held while schools are in session as an annual chance for students to look into the situation alongside their teachers, building awareness of the importance of mother tongues in the world. It would be fantastic if they could be celebrated on the same date, and beneficial for awareness building and promotion in the community, across the country, and among all humanity, because this is a richness that we all belong to, and we are all responsible for making sure that these languages do not go extinct.

In 1990 it was calculated that only 10% of students in Rapa Nui spoke the island’s language. To rectify the situation, the community banded together and took action to preserve its linguistic heritage. What are the most important actions that have been taken?
Working to teach our language to children has brought me more satisfaction than anything else in my life. I say that because at the start it was an uphill struggle, and years went by before I could show that it was worth the effort to provide a grounding in our language, that students could indeed learn science and mathematics, and that Rapa Nui is just as effective as other languages for achieving learning outcomes. The key is working with love and perseverance, respecting the innate capabilities and knowledge of each child. It’s also hard to find the time and space in the school that students need for their language; it’s an issue that is down to the school management and the curriculum, not the teacher.

Actions taken have included creating the Rapa Nui tongue and culture department as a space within the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School for Rapa Nui teachers and community elders to reflect on the situation of our mother tongue and our culture. That led to the creation of Rapa Nui Language Day and Poetry Day, recreating the poems of Kai-Kai, Karaŋa, and with other texts created by the students. Projects backed by CONADI and the Ministry of Education have also led to the creation of texts by Rapa Nui teachers at the school on science, history, and reading and writing for basic education.

The Rapa Nui Tongue Academy supports work in the language at schools. Since its creation in 2004, it has completed a number of projects including preparing Rapa Nui early childhood education texts and re-editing texts on reading and writing for first and second grade. It has created two interactive CDs for early childhood and basic education, with cultural concepts, mathematics, and basic geometry.

In 2007 we started to work with the Ministry of Education on plans and programmes for indigenous language teaching and learning in national education. It’s an optional learning area in schools - they can choose whether or not they want it to form part of their curriculum. However, it is obligatory in schools where at least 20% of students belong to indigenous groups. These plans and programmes have been sent out for consultation with the Rapa Nui community, in compliance with ILO Convention 169.

We have a local newspaper in Rapa Nui, which is only published on an irregular basis; most of the contributors work at the Language Academy or in bible translation. This work depends on being awarded project funds, which is why we would like to have a source of permanent financing.

Is bilingualism the best way to address this problem?
I can’t give you a categorical answer on bilingualism as a solution to the difficult times that we are going through with our language. For now, I don’t think that we will be able to use bilingual education to win back the majority of children and young people who do not speak the Rapa Nui language. However, if we had curriculum plans and programmes similar to those of the Italian school, the Alliance Française, or the German or English schools in Chile, then I think we might be able to solve our problem. Our Lorenzo Baeza Vega School is an inter-cultural bilingual school, but it doesn’t have that kind of bilingualism as most classes are taught in Spanish. Only the immersion programme, running from early childhood through to fourth grade, has classes given preferentially in Rapa Nui; then from 5th grade through to 8th grade we have four teaching hours per week for our tongue.

What would be the best way to address the lack of teachers who speak Rapa Nui, and their insufficient level of inter-cultural training?
To solve the deficit of Rapa Nui speaking teachers we would have to motivate young people in the final grades of high school to go on to study teaching, and, for instance, to offer them the same training that is provided for our Maori counterparts at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. In view of our roots, we could try to form a Polynesian language teacher training agreement with New Zealand; we do think of ourselves as Polynesian. In Chile, we have teacher training in foreign languages but not in the languages of the country’s indigenous peoples, as there ought to be. Our languages are not even taken into consideration in the country’s different areas of development, they are not required to apply for a job, for scholarships, or for many other benefits. This is a situation that keeps us and our mother tongue Rapa Nui marginalised.

Chile defines itself as an intercultural country. What characteristics should feature in education to promote that?

If Chile defines itself as an intercultural country, education at all schools - public and private - should be intercultural, featuring the languages and cultures of the country’s indigenous peoples in the curriculum, and not just at schools with a high percentage of indigenous students. State institutions should also take responsibility for the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples. Linguistic and cultural diversity belongs to everyone, not just to an ethnic minority. An example would be the case of Paraguay. There, Guaraní is an official language for the country, alongside Spanish. Linguistic awareness should be promoted through media campaigns to restore the value of indigenous languages as the key element of the country’s first nation groups.

State universities should accept a responsibility to train teachers who are bilingual in Spanish and an indigenous tongue, so as to be able to provide bilingual services in the regions where they are needed.

What specific project are you working on right now?
I am continuing to teach, giving classes at the school in science and Rapa Nui language, and contributing as director of the Language Academy. My next project will be working within families on reading and writing, and boosting awareness to encourage parents and other family members to talk to children in Rapa Nui, thus helping to support our work preserving and revitalising our mother tongue.

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