Latin America: Countries should prioritise training teachers in the language of the community in which they teach

By: Silvina Corbetta, Argentinian researcher, coordinator and co-author of the case study “Los otros étnicos y la dinámica de inclusión-exclusión educativa en América Latina”, prepared for the 2020 GEM Report Latin America and the Caribbean- Inclusion and education: All means all

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Education policies in Latin America and the Caribbean have historically ignored indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants. Education systems across the region were built to promote cultural homogenization, which has influenced the way in which curricula are developed and in which language classes are taught.

Today, debates focus on the promotion of local languages as one of the most relevant aspects to guarantee the right to an equitable and quality intercultural bilingual education (ethno-education, or “own education”, among other denominations) for everyone. This implies revaluing cultural and linguistic diversity, highlighting different socio-cultural identities, and bringing indigenous knowledge and traditional education closer together.

 I prepared a background paper entitled “Los otros étnicos y la dinámica de inclusión-exclusión educativa en América Latina” together with Patricia Divinsky, Fernando Bustamante, Maia Domnanovich and Rodolfo Domnanovich to feed into the GEM Report’s analysis on ethnicity, inclusion and interculturality in its recent regional report for Latin America and the Caribbean on inclusion and education. Our study seeks to provide an overview of the education situation of Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples and to reflect on the existing education policies in the region from an intercultural approach.

Speaking of the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Latin America means referring to some 154 million people, almost a third of the inhabitants of our countries (28.4%). In the case of the indigenous population, despite improvements observed in illiteracy rates, gaps remain. Despite numerous national efforts, indigenous peoples still have higher illiteracy rates, lower participation in education and higher dropout rates than their non-indigenous peers. This is the result of curricula that do not reflect their language, their way of living and their knowledge. Poverty, the geographical distance between households and education centres, early entry into the labour market, among other factors, are directly linked to policies that do not encourage or support “other” epistemological and ontological practices. In all countries for which information is available, it is women who have the highest illiteracy rates, except for Nicaragua, where the reverse is true. Rural indigenous women are the most disadvantaged.

A teacher in Wixarica, Nuevo Colonia, Estado de Jalisco, México. Credits: UNICEF/UNI177022/Richter

Available indicators show that disadvantages are more entrenched for the Afro-descendent population compared to the non-Afro-descendant population and that men are the furthest behind. On the other hand, as the population ages, illiteracy is higher for both populations compared to those who do not self-identify as indigenous or Afro-descendants.

In terms of school attendance rates, indigenous peoples have lower attendance rates than their non-indigenous peers. But Afro-descendants are the furthest behind. The gap widens, as age and educational level increase. Male Afro-descendents are the furthest behind of all. And when attendance rates are disaggregated by area of residence, those in urban areas are better off, to the detriment of Afro-descendant populations.

Many countries across the region have carried out actions to address the educational rights of indigenous peoples and those of African descent through Intercultural Bilingual Education, own-education, and/or ethno-education, but many challenges remain.

Public policy cannot abandon its obligation to train teachers in the language of the community where they teach, so that children are truly included in educational processes according to their language and culture. There is only scarce training of teachers in the knowledge system of indigenous peoples, there remains a lack of relevant teaching materials, and continuous inequality of teaching categories according to the level of recruitment of indigenous and non-indigenous teachers.

There are other basic challenges to guaranteeing linguistic rights. Including a question on mother tongues, indigenous languages or languages spoken by the entire population in national censuses is a basic input for guaranteeing linguistic rights and strengthening research on the degree of vitality and the subsequent design of appropriate public policies. However, only three countries in our region have included this question for the entire population. This should be the central question we ask each other today: How far are States willing to go to guarantee the linguistic rights of all?

*This blog is based on an interview conducted by OREALC/UNESCO Santiago before the 2020 GEM Report for Latin America and the Caribbean was published.  


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