The Rapa Nui language is alive but endangered: new “Linguistic and Cultural Revitalization Plan” addresses the challenge of strengthening it

  • This plan emerged in the context of Chile’s education reform after the first citizen dialogue was held in Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile) in October 2014. The focus was “What education do we dream of?”

  • The design of this project included the application of a socio-linguistic survey that was completed by 542 people. The results suggest that the Rapa Nui language enjoys a high level of respect and prestige in the community, even among those who do not speak it. They also indicate that it is a defining element of speakers’ identity and that there are limited opportunities to learn it outside of the family milieu.

Vicky Haoa has dedicated years to the strengthening of the Rapa Nui language: "Language is part of our way of being, our thoughts, our feelings, our joys and much more," he says. Photo: Ministry of Education, Chile.

Santiago, 21 February 2018.

This participatory process began in 2014 when Chile’s Ministry of Education (Mineduc) visited every province in the country to gather information from members of the public on what a dream education reform would look like. “The Rapa Nui community stated that they agree with structural changes to the education system as long as they consider and respect intercultural education, the indigenous world view and the history of the communities, as well as other elements that protect education that is relevant to the territories”, explained Andrés Soffia, the Coordinator of the Citizen Participation and Inclusion Unit (Mineduc).

During subsequent encounters with the Rapa Nui people, particularly between members of educational communities, Mineduc and UNESCO, it became clear that there was a need to analyze the current situation of the Rapa Nui language and culture, and this became one of the project objectives.

The cultural and linguistic revitalization project began with an assessment of the state of linguistic competency of the Rapa Nui language among the island’s population. Efforts also were made to ascertain the community’s perceptions of education and the place that Rapa Nui language and cultural heritage hold in it. Experts worked with the community to gather data on the measures that the Rapa Nui people believe are necessary in order to achieve linguistic and cultural strengthening.

The work conducted during the first phase (2015) concluded with the development of a linguistic and cultural situation report on the Rapa Nui people. The document was completed with community participation and included the design and pilot application of a socio-linguistic survey in order to determine the state of vitality of the Rapa Nui language.

The second phase of the process (2016) consisted of analyzing the results of the pilot application and construction of the final instrument, which was applied between October and November 2016. During 2017, progress was made on the analysis of the survey results and design of the plan of action based on the assessment conducted in collaboration with the Mineduc teams involved in the process.

The community of Rapa Nui, the heart of the plan to revitalize their language. Phptp: Ministry of Education, Chile

The proposal has three axes: 1) epistemic and intercultural participation and dialogue; 2) intercultural institutional policy design and practices; and 3) adjustment of internal and external regulations. A plan of action has been designed for 2018-2021 that covers various measures in the following lines of action:

  • Ongoing communications efforts to raise awareness of and publicize actions and results;
  • Participation in and strengthening of the use of the language from and in communities and families;
  • Intercultural institutional management;
  • Formal and informal curriculum development;
  • Ongoing training of teachers, traditional educators, and Rapa Nui experts;
  • Development of teaching materials in immersion, bilingualism and the Indigenous Language Learning Sector;
  • Systematization, monitoring, support and advising on the process.

During 2018, work will be conducted to include traditional educators in the education system; gather information on learning spaces; provide opportunities for reflection with the educational community; design evaluation instruments for linguistic and cultural competencies; design a training policy for teachers, traditional educators and experts; foster participatory design of teaching materials for linguistic immersion; and create local and institutional panels for the management and monitoring of the plan, among other actions.

“It was necessary for this linguistic and cultural strengthening to go beyond the contents or topics included in national education programs and for it to address the entire experience of the Rapa Nui people. We believe that we are experiencing a hopeful event for efforts to increase recognition of the richness of cultural diversity in Rapa Nui and its unique contribution to a better society for all,” stated Atilio Pizarro, the Section Chief for Planning, Management, Monitoring and Evaluation at the Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago).

The survey and its results

“If there are no children who speak our language, and we as adults die, when these children are adults and become parents, they won’t speak the language and will not be able to teach it to their children,” laments Vicky Haoa, member of the Rapa Nui Language Academy. The socio-linguistic survey is meant to determine the level of vitality of the Rapa Nui language based on the guidelines set by UNESCO (UNESCO, 2003).

Photo: Ministry of Education, Chile

The survey was built in Spanish and Rapa Nui, and the target population was composed of school-aged children, youth and adults from Rapa Nui families (Rapa nui or mixed families) who live on Easter Island. The survey was conducted by 28 individuals of Rapa Nui origin between October 26 and November 18, 2016. The total estimated population based on the sample was 3,000 people, 542 of whom participated in the survey.

The survey results show that over 70% of members of the Rapa Nui ethnic group who are aged 65 or older have a high level of linguistic competency. As the age level decreases, the percentage of respondents who have a high level of competency also gradually decreases, reaching a low of just 16.7% in the youngest group (8-12 years).

The data also indicate that the Rapa Nui language is dominant in private environments and in social, family and traditional activities, while Spanish is the dominant language in areas of new and public use. In addition, the Rapa Nui language enjoys respect and prestige in the community, even among those who do not speak it. Also, it is a defining element of speakers’ identities. However, there are limited opportunities to learn it outside of the family milieu, and more decisive action by the State and public institutions is required to protect and strengthen it.

Assuming that speakers of the language are those who demonstrate a high level of competency, representing between 59% and 63% of the population with 95% confidence (in terms of the scale established by UNESCO, 2003), this proportion places Rapa Nui on the third level (“clearly in danger or threatened”), indicating that the majority of the community speaks the language. The scale ranges from 0 (no one speaks the language) to 5 (everyone speaks the language). Despite these hopeful statistics, the qualitative evaluation indicates that the language is endangered.

As such, for Vicky Haoa, member of the Rapa Nui Language Academystrengthening the Rapa Nui language also has to do with pursuing the dream “that my language will not disappear, because language is part of our way of being, of our thoughts, our feelings, our joys and much more. If our language disappears, one cannot speak of the existence of a culture called Rapa Nui. We show who we are through our language.”

Paula Pilquinao, who represents the Indigenous Intercultural Education Office of the Undersecretary of Education of Chile, agrees with Vicky Haoa: “All knowledge is implicit in the language; the entire culture is implicit in the language. If the language is lost, the entire culture is lost, all of the knowledge that that language carries. That is where its importance lies. If the children no longer know the language, they won’t know their culture, and so they lose their identity,” she explained.


According to UNESCO, a language is considered endangered when it ceases to be used, is used in a limited number of spaces, stops being taught to new generations or when there are few opportunities and resources available for teaching and learning it.

UNESCO recognizes the importance of supporting the efforts of indigenous communities to strengthen their language and culture and provide the conditions necessary to allow them to transmit their knowledge, values and unique ways of life to future generations.

International experiences and studies show that bilingual (or multilingual) education systems based on the mother tongue in which the mother tongue is taught to the child along with the introduction of a second language can improve performance in the second language and other topics.

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