Have you ever thought of what your life would be life if you were the last person in the world who speaks English? How would you feel without anyone with whom to share the particular words, phrases and memories of your family and life? That’s a question millions of Mexicans face daily. Many are among the last speakers of their mother tongue. Here is an answer to their plight.
Hundreds of people gather in the Zocalo of Oaxaca, Mexico, to observe the International Day of Maternal Language. The wide-spread limbs of an immense laurel tree casts a pool of shade over the participants seated and standing around the low stage. Television cameras aim at the stage and a camera drone buzzes overhead. I stand with a man from Ixtlán de Juárez, a mountain town of Zapotec speakers. He also speaks Spanish.
Most in the crowd wear modern clothes but the presenters wear traditional costumes. A women robed in a long, embroidered dress and walks to the on-stage microphone. She smiles; her teeth gleam against her brown face; the red and gold embroidery on her black dress glows where sunlight hits it. She seems to be aflame. Speaking in Zapotec and then in Spanish, she announces the poets and declamadores who will speak.
The poets step to the microphone, each one dressed in the traditional clothing of their pueblo. One by one, the poets pour out the soul of their people. In Mixe and Zapotec, Maya and Mixteco, Zoche and Chinanteco, their voices rise and fall, taut with urgency and passion. They gesture to the heavens, to the crowd and to themselves. Hands move to accent words I don’t understand. Each poem describes a particular Mexico; poets the heart of their people who speak their tongue, who were—and still are—formed by those languages. In words, gestures and tone of voice, they reach out to us, their listeners, imploring us to enter their world, their language, their culture, their people, their heart.
This isn’t Sunday entertainment for tourists. Theirs is a mission to advance recognition and use of their languages as integral parts of the 21st century Mexico. Today’s program involves only six of the 68 languages officially recognized by Mexico’s government. Recognition alone doesn’t guarantee linguistic survival. Indigenous language speakers still face discrimination from non-indigenous speakers. For this reason, many ambitious youths avoid their ancestral idiom to get ahead. Some languages will die with the elderly who still speak them and this will be a loss for all of humanity.
In Oaxaca alone, one resident in three speaks an indigenous tongue. Spanish, the language of the conquista, is common in business, government and education but it is secondary for millions of Mexicans. Why do they or we care about these tongues? Aren’t they relics of the past—not part of the modern world? After all, a modern society needs a common language—Spanish.
No, they aren’t relics. They are living languages of vital cultures. Yes, indigenous people can and do use Spanish but a second language isn’t a mother tongue and doesn’t touch the roots of our identity—individually and culturally. I’m a native English speaker and bi-lingual in Spanish. Although I speak, read and write Spanish at a high level, Spanish is not and never will be the language emanating from deep in my soul because I wasn’t formed by it. I can’t express my deepest emotions in Spanish. My Mexican friends experience the same thing with English. Who we are spiritually, emotionally, authentically is tied to our mother tongue.
Again, how would you feel if you were the world’s last English speaker? It may feel like the isolation of traveling in an alien country, cut off from English and the emotional nurture it provides. It is one of the greatest of lonelinesses. Losing the language, culture and fellow speakers is like that—magnified a hundred-fold. We take our mother tongue for granted at our peril.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”—so opens the Gospel of John. The opening phrase of ‘the Word’ contains a profound truth. Things don’t have a specific reality to us unless they have a name, a word, to distinguish one thing from another. And words, taken together, are a language. And language is a map for navigating a particular cultural universe, a cosmos of concepts, precepts, and beliefs.
Language—the Word—is humanity’s great creative force. It extends far beyond transacting business and exchanging information. Each tongue has an attendant culture, the structure of the language and vocabulary uniquely expresses wisdom, a distinct worldview of a people distilled from millennia of experiences. Each language and its attendant culture is like a seed containing infinite human possibilities.
This afternoon, in the shade of the laurel, the poets scatter their seeds, seeking good soil where the the indigenous languages with their wealth of ancestral wisdom, values, and precepts will find support, take root, and thrive into the 21st century.