Bilingual Intercultural Education in Ancash – An Interview with Leonel Menacho

By Doris Loayza (DL), Mitch Teplitsky (MT) y Carlo Brescia (CB)
Date of the Interview: 28.07.2012
Translation into English: Maribel León, Elizabeth Rein
Photos: Dr. Félix Julca Guerrero
Listen to the interview in Spanish in this PODCAST
Interview was included as an article in issue Nr 14  (January 2013) of Peripheria Magazine.

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MT: I would like to know how you decided to become a Quechua teacher.

LM: Well, I come from a large family where I’m the only one who speaks Quechua. From the age of two I was lucky to live with a great aunt who only spoke this language. I guess my basic code was Spanish but then I learned Quechua very well and liked it. The beauty about my great aunt was that although she was illiterate, she motivated my reading and writing. She would always take me to an uncle’s abandoned library and carefully guide me to always examine the books. Therefore when I attended school, I quickly learned to read and write in Spanish. Nevertheless I arrived at school speaking Quechua and luck was on my side. In 3rd grade a teacher began to use Quechua in drama class. I became the teacher’s favorite for being the only one who spoke it well. I felt very empowered to use my own code. Later in high school, there weren’t many relevant experiences.

In 1976 or 1977 I was already teaching when I passed by the main square and noticed a conference taking place. I heard a foreigner talk about the future of Quechua and one of his conclusions was that in ten years Quechua would disappear. I felt bad. Then I asked him “But how can you claim that? You’re trying to tell me that a relatively young person like me will be dead in ten years because I’m a Quechua speaker?” (Laughs) As he tried to explain himself, I had already gotten the challenge into my head. From that moment on I began to work hard on behalf of the Quechua language. That’s how a colleague and I began to enhance the work we had been doing with the language. We began going out to the countryside, to create texts and songs independently, without any external funding because we were doing it willingly. And we gradually identified with the language more and more.

We studied Quechua linguistics, not at the university with a systematic approach, but rather in a very pragmatic way. However, we became convinced that it was the alternative as one has to consider mother tongues, all mother tongues. In other words, a child has the right to learn in his native language, learn to read and to write and to learn other languages as well because life shows us plurality. We must learn from that plurality by starting from what we already know. That’s how our Quechua identity is formed. No one had to convince me that Quechua was a good thing; I simply came to realize it through my personal reflection and life experience. Thanks to this language I am very happy because I’ve been very successful as a Quechua speaker; without it, I probably would not have had all these experiences.

CB: What happens when a monolingual Quechua-speaking child enters the standard educational public school system?

LM: Well, I recently wrote an article with David Weber and [Conrad] Phelps from Arequipa. A bit of a harsh article titled Quechua’s Enemies. I could refer to that article to explain what the child has to deal with when he attends school. The school in general – in certain cases – does not receive the Quechua-speaking child with open arms. The first obstacle the child has to face is the language barrier. Pity the child who starts public school as a monolingual Quechua-speaker; he will have a hard time. We have found cases in some communities where children are punished for being Quechua-speakers. They are not allowed to go to the bathroom, they are not allowed to speak Quechua; they are punished in different ways for speaking own their language. They cannot take on important or leading roles because they are Quechua-speakers. These children rarely overcome all the obstacles; most of them drop out over time. I’ve seen cases in Conchucos , for example, where Quechua-speaking children start attending school willingly; but in a short time, a month or two, they begin to feign illnesses: they get headaches, stomach aches, and they stop attending school because the teachers mistreat them. Ultimately, they withdraw from school.

There are extreme cases, but there are other instances where these children are welcomed and treated very well by teachers. We have a school nearby, in Chamanayuq, where Quechua-speaking children are well treated and happy because they get to sing songs in Quechua, read in Quechua and learn in Spanish as well. And this is a very nice atypical case where you can appreciate what the Bilingual Intercultural Education (BIE) model is about. The child can even correct the teacher on the proper use of either language at any time in order to avoid confusion in class.

We have examples of Spanish-speaking children who have gone to (schools in) Quechua communities, and unlike the cases mentioned earlier, they were better integrated. There was a Spanish-speaking child who came from Lima to Chamanayuq, where he was welcomed lovingly by the teacher. At first the child did not want to hang out with the others because they could not understand each other. So, the teacher started getting him involved through games and ultimately the child was bilingual at the end of 1st grade; he could read in both Spanish and Quechua. Furthermore, the teacher took advantage of the Spanish-speaking child’s knowledge to work with the Quechua-speaking children. Therefore, he was very useful in the educational process.

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CB: Do you have more examples of best practices in BIE?

LM: For example in Poqraq, a community located in the puna of Recuay, we asked a critical thinking question regarding the canción del zorro (song of the fox). This song highlights man’s resentment towards the animal because it is the cause of the sheep’s disappearance. We asked: What’s your opinion about the man’s attitude? Is it right or is it wrong for man to hate the fox, and why? It was a complex question.

Well, the children responded in different ways, but for the most part their reply was, “It is right, we should hate the fox because it takes sheep from us, it takes chickens, he is a thief”, etc. But one little boy answered differently and that was the beauty of it: How a child can respond in a critical and personal way. The child said, “No, I don’t agree that we should hate the fox; we should love it and respect it because sometimes when we walk through the mountains we find a dead animal. And who disposes of the remains so the flies don’t get to it? The fox. Therefore the fox also helps us to preserve the environment”. It was an excellent response for a 1st grader. This also shows that if he uses prior knowledge, reading analysis will be relatively easy and comprehension will be high. We have proven this. Unfortunately, teachers don’t take this into consideration.

For example, if we first worked on reading comprehension in Quechua and then taught students to speak in Spanish, success would be guaranteed. In the case of math, for example, I remember once I went to teach class in a community near Uco. I started asking the children simple questions such as “How many sheep do you have at home?” or “How many guinea pigs do you have?” Each child would count how many they had. Based on their answers I gradually gave them additional problems of increasing difficulty, until I asked a question with an error I didn’t notice at the time. I asked: Panchito, if your four guinea pigs gave birth to five baby guinea pigs, how many guinea pigs would you have at home? Due to the horizontal dialogue we had established, the child’s answer was “Professor, you don’t know how to ask.” I asked the question once again without realizing my mistake and insisted on its clarity until the child explained, “Professor, you are asking it incorrectly because here in my village, female guinea pigs never give birth to five. It’s impossible.

This helped me to experientially understand that when children are at a particular stage of mental development, they have to solve problems based on reality, not imagination.

DL: Talking about strengthening the Quechua language and how proud we should be of it, we have to acknowledge the need to show more factors that reveal the importance of the Quechua world.

On the subject of mathematics, I’d like to mention a study conducted by German anthropologist Inge Bolin. In Quispicanchis, Cusco, she observed how children absorbed the concept of numbers through stimulation stemming from their daily activities. She demonstrated that these Quechua-speaking children remained in their hometowns until the age of twelve, and then when they moved to lower-altitude towns, they achieved top grades in math.

In another instance, a student conducting research at the University of Engineering (Universidad de Ingeniería) pointed out to me that many Andean students attained top scores on exams at that school. It’s evident that the Quechua world fosters the field of numbers, and this proves to be another element of the richness of its culture.

LM: Yes. This is absolutely true. The Quechua-speaking child, as any other child, has to learn from real-life situations. He learns a lot in the field, such as learning to count by watching animals and other elements within his own context. He learns to carry out basic math operations by observing his environment; for example, if he takes his herd out to pasture and an animal goes astray, he uses subtraction to establish that an element is missing. If his friends come along and they gather their cattle together, they use addition. These cognitive processes develop in a natural and positive way, but they become stymied once children attend school since “huk” and “one” are seen as two different things. As a result the coding changes and the child feels lost in that thought process. But if we keep using Quechua in schools, the math development process, as well as the awakening and strengthening of logical-mathematical intelligence will be highly positive.

CB: What are the necessary factors to make this type of education effective?

LM: I believe that training the teacher is fundamental. The teacher must understand the theoretical part of why we must teach in the mother language. That’s what is needed in this country. I think teachers need to study basic courses in linguistics and psycholinguistics. These courses should clearly explain to teachers why we have to teach in Quechua. This is not a whim or a question of identity. There are deeper reasons; psychological, psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic reasons why a child needs to learn in his own language. If the teacher does not understand that, he will have difficulty implementing the BIE program. I think the biggest issue right now is that when the teacher receives training – if any is available – he is perplexed at the thought of how to implement it. Since he is not clear on the theory, when he goes back to school he doesn’t know what to do. He may use this method in one or two classes, but eventually drops it and returns to the previous routine.

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CB: What is happening with the State?

LM: There is documentation since 1985 which states that teaching schools should provide pre-service teacher training within an outline dictated by the sociolinguistic context. That is, teachers should graduate as intercultural bilingual educators, able to read and write efficiently in both Quechua and Spanish. The norm is stipulated; however neither the State nor the Ministry of Education show the least interest in verifying whether there is compliance or not. In this regard I have two issues to discuss. First, we must consider pre-service training and secondly, continuous in-service training. In both cases the state demonstrates a lack of firmness needed to monitor the efficiency of these services.

Regarding pre-service training, for example, I noticed the following discrepancies when I worked at the Ministry. During my visits to different teaching schools, I observed that the Quechua courses consisted of traditional food and dress contests, or field trips. They did not study linguistics, writing, or Quechua grammar. The State, obviously pressed by demands, does implement the project but does not assume responsibility for monitoring its proper development. The same occurs with continuous in-service training courses. The state is not concerned with monitoring what is being done. This issue does not only originate from the government, but also from many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

For instance, it is okay that NGOs go do work in the countryside. But they should be subject to supervision in order to evaluate how they implement their education, as well as determine its effectiveness through assessment processes. Many NGOs do work with Bilingual Intercultural Education in this country, but nobody supervises them. Many of these institutions have spent time in Conchucos; some work indiscriminately at the oral level, others at the written level. But when visiting the schools you don’t find anything being implemented, so the problem also lies with the State’s indifference and inability to regulate.

Right now there is a Marca Perú (Peru Brand) school program that has experienced many limitations with professional recruitment. I participated in a Ministry meeting in September of last year. It was announced then that trainers – now called technical assistants – had to master both Quechua and Spanish. However, at this point there are many instances where teachers cannot speak Quechua. The question is: what will they do, as technical assistants, on behalf of the Quechua language? Nothing. And who allows it? The system, which summons a certain type of personnel, then retracts itself by hiring another type of professional. In this context, the work is guaranteed to fail, not succeed.

I can relay an anecdote regarding this issue that occurred last week. The technical assistants were working in the field and the Regional Office specialist decided that a student parade should take place. He then gave the order to suspend all field work to make a presentation at the main square. This is one way to hinder work without justifiable reasons.

These difficulties not only occur at that level. It also happens with distribution of materials, which ends up being a serious problem. According to plan, the materials are prepared to be delivered in January to the Ministry of Education which in turn must distribute them nationwide. The Quechua material, which is the area where I have worked, would be distributed to the various UGEL (Provincial Education Units) in early March, but these entities would fail to make the respective distribution to schools. Sometimes the entire school year passes and these reading and writing materials remain at the UGEL. Ultimately, no one claims responsibility.

CB: So, what type of education should we promote?

LM: Education is a tool to enhance the culture to optimum conditions which determines the worth of mankind. Our communities, however small, have knowledge, science, technology, they have everything. What is needed is to identify these communities and promote their attributes through an adequate education system. So, if I have a good diagnosis of reality, I will also propose an educational alternative suitable to this reality. Hence we will have mechanisms such as curricular diversification to offer a relevant education in these communities.

A few years back I did a workshop for parents – both men and women – in a community in the Barrick area. My goal was to show that parents could read and write in Quechua. They said, «No, that’s very difficult, professor. We no longer speak legitimate Quechua. We might speak it, but not read or write it.«

After some encouragement, we started working with large pieces of paper I gave them. I told them in Quechua to write anything they wanted. They were not clear on it until I asked someone: «Madam, what can you do?” She replied “Well, I know how to make mote (hominy).” I then suggested she write how she made mote at home and they all began producing small paragraphs. The funny thing was that at the time of production, some looked at the work of others and said “No, that’s not how it is done; only sloppy people do it like that. We do it in a different way.” And thus began the discussion. This discussion resulted in a substantial increase of written text, plus it was evaluated through the use of graphics. So I told them: «Now that it is written this stays with you, and not only for you but also for other generations.» Notice the importance of writing in our own language.

In other words, the school must be open to the community and not as we see it now: closed. The school should not be the sole responsibility of the teacher, but of society as a whole. As such, a relevant school is one that belongs to us all. It’s MY school as a teacher, it’s MY school as a parent, it’s MY school as an authority figure, it’s MY school as a member of the community and I will do everything in my power to make this school a success.

CB: Thanks very much for your time and let’s continue to preserve the language and culture.

LM: Yes, as far as strength allows it. (Laughs)