Language revitalisation from the ground up in Mexico (by Dr. Josep Cru)

Josep Cru holds a BA in Linguistics from the University of Barcelona and an MA in Language, Literacy and Culture from the University of California at Berkeley. From 2001 to 2007, he worked for Linguapax, an international NGO based in Barcelona which promotes language diversity worldwide. Since 2007, he has taught Spanish, Catalan and Sociolinguistics at Newcastle University in the UK. In 2013, he finished a PhD thesis on language ideologies and revitalization in Yucatan, Mexico. His publications can be found here and his profile, here. 


As in the rest of Latin America, language policy and planning for indigenous languages in Mexico has mainly focused on the formal education system as a key domain to revalorise indigenous languages and cultures. The introduction and expansion of the so-called Intercultural Bilingual Education (EIB in Spanish) in the last couple of decades has underpinned prominent and unprecedented socio-political transformations for indigenous peoples in Mexico and beyond (particularly the Andean countries). There are, however, important challenges and limitations of bilingual educational policies stemming from governmental institutions. I do not have the space to spell them out here, but the interested reader can learn more about the pitfalls of EIB in a recent book on this topic edited by Regina Cortina (2014). Apart from these top-down policies, I believe it is extremely important to support informal projects that come from the grassroots and go beyond formal educational institutions.

For a decade now, I have been involved in a language revitalisation project through the arts called the Proyecto de Revitalización, Mantenimiento y Desarrollo Lingüístico y Cultural (Revitalisation, Maintenance, and Cultural and Linguistic Development, prmdlc). This project, led by my colleague José Antonio Flores Farfán, was created with a view to promoting several Mexican indigenous languages from the ground up. It is based on the production of culturally sensitive materials that include local meaningful oral genres such as riddles and tongue twisters in Mexican indigenous languages (Flores Farfán, 2012).

Unlike what one might think from a Western perspective, riddles and other verbal games are not minor genres among many indigenous peoples. In the Yucatán, for instance, where I did my fieldwork, riddles are fundamental heuristic forms of ‘playful speech’ (ba’axal t’aan) that can be found in early colonial texts such as the Chilam Balam books. Although the prmdlc started with the publication of printed materials, it has progressively included multimedia products, and a recent repository of audiovisual materials in several Mexican indigenous languages is now online at high quality material, which recreates local oral narratives and is co-authored by indigenous persons, aims at eliciting language use in informal settings, such as gatherings and workshops organised in towns and villages where indigenous languages are still spoken. The aim of these workshops, led by speakers of indigenous languages associated with the project, is to trigger oral production and supersede the emphasis given to literacy in official language policies and particularly in the formal education system. Below is an example of one of the riddles included in the Yucatec Maya book Na’at le baa’la paalen (Adivina esta cosa ninio):


Maya riddle from the booklet Na’at le ba’ala paalen: Adivina esta cosa ninio

Wa na’atun na’ateche’

na’at le ba’ala’:

Chowak, nojoch, polok

búuk tso’ots

yéetel utia’al iit. /

Guess the riddle, kid: Long, fat and lots of hair, takes your bottom everywhere!

Answer: Tsíimin (Horse)


My direct involvement with this project dates back to 2005 when a booklet on riddles entitled ‘Adivinanzas Mexicanas’ was published jointly by the prestigious publishing house Artes de Mexico, ciesas, and Linguapax, an ngo based in Barcelona where I was working at the time.The booklet features riddles in two varieties of Nahuatl, plus translations into Spanish, English and Catalan. The inclusion of Catalan is explained by the financial support provided by the regional government of Catalonia, which was channelled through Linguapax to ciesas in Mexico.

I have been lucky enough to attend some workshops, while I was doing fieldwork in the Yucatán peninsula, where we have used these materials. Two of the workshops took place in Yucatán state, in the villages of Halachó and San Pedro Chimay, and the third was organised in Xcabil in Quintana Roo. These workshops, which often take place in the central square of towns, are social occasions for people from different generations to meet. In Xcabil, for instance, a projector was used to show the riddles, which turned the main square of the village into a sort of open-air cinema. These events were fruitful experiences to gauge levels of Maya language proficiency in those locations and to observe the effect of a ludic approach to language promotion, especially, but not exclusively, among children, since the goal is to gather speakers from different generations. For instance, in San Pedro Chimay, a village within the municipality of Mérida, children responded mainly in Spanish to elicitations based on Maya riddles. Although they seemed to know some basic Maya vocabulary, they did not produce any complete sentence in that language, which suggests an advanced state of language shift.

By contrast in the village of Xcabil, which is about the same demographic size as San Pedro Chimay and is situated in the heartland of the Maya area of Quintana Roo, the workshop showed the high vitality that Maya still has in that area. The central square of the village where the workshop was organised was full and not only were participants eager to respond in Maya but they also proposed further word games. Also, this event was co-organised by students of the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, which facilitated its success since students from that University come from neighbouring communities.

Taller in S. Pedro Chimay.JPG
Participants in workshop on Maya riddles in San Pedro Chimay, Yucatán

At least in my experience with these workshops, participation and engagement by the local population have always been very positive. The strength of these events lies in the promotion of the self-esteem of speakers and the valorisation of Maya within an informal and playful environment. There are also some weaknesses, though, that bear mentioning. One important downside is that these workshops are one-off activities. Moreover, the initiative to organise them comes more often than not from without the communities rather than from within. A broader appropriation by the community and the continuity of these workshops are still challenges to overcome, although the increasing leading role of students of Intercultural Universities in organising and replicating these workshops is a positive sign in that direction. Moreover, to my knowledge, no follow up has been done to find out the sociolinguistic effects of these events on language attitudes and, ultimately, on patterns of language reproduction of the participants. It would be worth exploring whether the informal nature of the events, which emphasise an emotional attachment to Maya and enhance the sentimental value of that language, has any impact on the (re)activation of Maya among attendees, particularly children. This is especially important if we consider the fact that language stigmatisation persists, especially in urban settings, and that many people continue to see Maya in the Yucatan as having little value for socioeconomic mobility. On a more positive note, I have also noted that some youngsters are engaging in language revitalisation efforts by using Maya in modern music genres and digital media, domains in which the individual agency of speakers is central (Cru, 2014).



Cortina, Regina

2014    The Education of Indigenous Citizens in Latin America. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Cru, Josep

2015    Bilingual rapping in Yucatán, Mexico: strategic choices for Maya language legitimation and revitalisation. International Journal of Bilingual education and Bilingualism.

Flores Farfán, José Antonio

2012    Wearing its interculturalism on its sleeve: travels through Mexican language and culture. In Jeanette Sakel and Thomas Stolz (eds.), Amerindiana. Neue Perspektiven auf die Indigenen Sprachen Amerikas. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.




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