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Saving a Dying Language: Graduate students help preserve endangered language in the Amazon Basin of Peru



—Excerpt from Saving a Dying Language, a Web journal project for Inside UT. Robin Gerrow, communications director for the College of Liberal Arts, reported on location from Peru. Read Robin's first journal entries below. Then, visit The Journal to learn how her journey progressed and to find more information about the Iquito Language Documentation Project.

Moonrise in San Antonio, a small village in the Amazon Basin of Peru and the last thriving Iquito community
Moonrise in San Antonio, a small village in the Amazon Basin of Peru and the last thriving Iquito community.
About 120 kilometers outside of the Peruvian city of Iquitos, in the Amazon Basin, is the village of San Antonio. San Antonio is home to the last speakers of Iquito, an endangered language now fluently spoken by 26 people in the world, the youngest of whom is about 52 years old.

After centuries of pressure to assimilate into a Spanish-speaking culture, the San Antonio community is now expressing its desire to keep the indigenous culture and language alive.

The residents of San Antonio approached the municipal government for help in not only preserving their language, but also in revitalizing it. This desire came to the attention of four graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin—Lev Michael, Chris Beier, Lynda De Jong and Mark Brown. Michael and Beier have been conducting humanitarian aid work in another part of Peru for several years. They found that this language revitalization project complemented their work in linguistic anthropology at the university. They in turn recruited linguistic students De Jong and Brown to participate in the first year of the project.

Joel Sherzer, Nora England and Anthony Woodbury are professors of anthropology and linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin working with the students to preserve this endangered language. The project is related more generally to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America directed by both Woodbury and Sherzer, and the Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America directed by England.

“There is a great interest of late in documenting endangered languages and doing all that can be done to maintain their use,” said Sherzer. “This project is of great significance because it involves a collaboration between The University of Texas graduate students and an indigenous group in this effort. It is a model for the many endangered languages of the world.”

Already, after only a few weeks of work, the students are well on their way to reaching their first-year goal to create a dictionary with 1,500 entries and a lesson plan to be used throughout the year. They have also begun teaching classes to many of the community’s children and adults. Beier said that an average of 20 adults and 35 youth, ranging in age from 6 to 16, attend their classes—a significant portion of San Antonio’s total population of about 400 people.

Trinidad Pacaya Inuma, an "especialista" and one of the remaining fluent speakers of the Iquito language
Trinidad Pacaya Inuma, an especialista and one of the remaining fluent speakers of the Iquito language.
In addition to the documentation and teaching of the language, the team has been busy pairing a group of four lay-linguists, or “linguistas,” to work one-on-one with a set of indigenous speakers of Iquito, known as “especialistas.” These linguistas, who include San Antonio’s schoolteachers, will continue the process of learning the language and carry out the work of teaching throughout the year.

The student team received great news earlier this month when they learned the project also received funding from the Endangered Language Fund—enough to pay the salaries of the community workers for the coming year. Additional funding is provided by the Department of Linguistics, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Cabeceras Aid Project.

Robin Gerrow, communications director for the College of Liberal Arts, is reporting on location from Peru. Read Robin's first journal entries below. Then, visit The Journal to learn how her journey progresses and find more information about the Iquito Language Documentation Project.

Wednesday, July 17

Bleary-eyed from 23 hours in airports and on planes, flying into Iquitos was quite an experience. We took a small commuter jet from Lima, with a stop in Tarapoto, which is best described as a wide spot in the runway. It was somewhat disconcerting to find that when we reached cruising altitude, the tops of the Andes Mountains were poking through the clouds and at times were higher than the airplane.

It was a very cloudy day, with little to see on the Tarapoto-Iquitos leg of the flight, until we descended below the cloud cover. Green vegetation as far as you could see, nothing else except the wide, muddy-brown swath of the Amazon. It wound back on itself in hairpin turns with oxbow lakes protruding occasionally into the jungles.

Arriving at the airport was uneventful (except for a few minutes when we thought we were missing a piece of luggage—worse yet, the one with our malaria medication); leaving the airport was another story. Walking out of the doors, we were descended upon by a mass of taxi and “motokar” (a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) drivers all vying for the opportunity to transport us to our hotel. Picking one at random, we then entered what seemed like a stock car race into the city, with buses, cars, motokars and motorcycles weaving in and out of two-way traffic that didn’t really seem to have any designated lanes.

By that point, the things we were looking forward to the most were a shower and sleep, but no such luck. Shortly after we arrived Christine Beier, one of the students we were expecting to meet, came to the hotel to start making plans. Over a quick meal, it was decided that we would spend the next two days buying supplies for the project, meet with several officials and arrange for transportation to San Antonio and back. I was hoping to meet the minister of culture and education and the director of the bilingual education program for interviews, and Chris wanted to meet with each of them in order to line up a support system for the linguistas and especialistas for the coming year.

Houseboat in Iquitos, the world's most inland port and capital of the Department of Loreto in Peru
Houseboat in Iquitos, the world's most inland port and capital of the Department of Loreto in Peru.
Meeting Chris the next morning we found out bad news—there was a national strike for the next two days. The gist was that all of the shops and restaurants were closed, and that we would not be able to conduct any meetings or interviews because the officials were worried about having their cars' tires slashed if they came to their offices during the strike. On top of that, we couldn’t even spend the time shopping for supplies because the stores were closed. Fortunately for us, the restaurant in our hotel was open—and doing a booming business because it seemed to be the only restaurant that was open in this city of 300,000. Even the tourist office, supposedly run by an ex-pat Texan, was closed. The purpose of the strike is a little fuzzy. When you ask someone about it, the only answer you really get is that it is a strike against “the government,” but nobody really seems to know anything more specific.

We spent a few hours wandering the streets, nearly deserted except for the parade of protesters, and more alarmingly, the riot police and military we encountered on almost every corner. The streets were covered in glass and debris. Chris said she had trouble sleeping because of the protestors smashing glass the night before.

We found that many of the “closed” shops were anything but. While storefronts were generally covered with bars and locked garage-type doors, if you knew what to look for (and Chris did) there were miniature doors, about three feet tall, off to the side that were sometimes ajar. We finally found a cyber café with one of these doors and a worker sitting out front to clandestinely usher us inside.

After a quick consultation with Chris, we decided there really wasn’t much more we could do today, so we went our separate ways with plans to meet for dinner—assuming we can find an open restaurant.

Thursday, July 18

Today saw the continuation of the strike, or paro, and another day of being stuck in the hotel. Today even more so than yesterday because of a downpour that lasted the better part of the day.

One appointment I had scheduled with the director of the bilingual teaching program based in Iquitos had to be cancelled because of the rain, as well as the fact that trying to take a motokar would have been risky. We woke up to the sound of shouting and what we hoped were firecrackers outside of our window near daylight. A quick look confirmed that motokars were being pelted with bricks and the streets were again covered with debris.

Though Chris and I had both hoped that we could meet with Gabel Sotil, director of education and culture, early in the morning, he again did not feel like he should be seen at his office. As an important and well-known government official, his appearance at work during a paro would have been both dangerous and ill-advised.

After spending most of the morning watching the rain from the hotel lobby, Tom and I ventured out on the rumor that a travel agent was open. We still needed to buy our return tickets to Lima, and it had to be done before our departure for San Antonio. Indeed, there was an agency open, and after more than an hour, we departed with tickets in hand.

The rest of the day was spent looking forward to the next.

Robin Gerrow

Photos: Robin and Tom Gerrow

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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