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Saving a Dying Language
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Iquito Language Documentation Project

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.

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.

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