Language policy in Latin America

(This is the full-length version - I had to cut it down for the article!)

Language policy in Spanish-speaking Latin America deals with challenges to the status of Spanish as the official language, a status inherited from the colonial administration of the New World. These challenges come from several sources: the assertion of the rights of indigenous groups, the ‘danger’ of fragmentation of Spanish into a multitude of local dialects, the growing prestige of English and influence of the United States, and along the southern border of Brazil, contact with Portuguese.

In the initial phase of colonization, the Catholic Monarchs and later Charles V required all of their new subjects to learn Spanish, just as their predecessors had imposed the learning of Castilian on the conquered Arab territories in order to bind them more closely together in the nation governed by Castile. However, it soon became clear that the linguistic diversity of the New World was too great to allow for the immediate implantation of Spanish, and some allowance had to be made for the usage of indigenous languages in teaching and evangelization. In 1570 Phillip II reluctantly authorized a policy of bilingualism in which instruction could be imparted in ‘the’ language of each Viceroyalty: Nahautl and in New Spain and Quechua in Peru, with the consequent extension of these two languages into territories where they were not spoken natively. Even this measure was not enough, however, and in 1596 Phillip II recognized the existent multilingualism: Spanish for administration and access to the elite, and a local indigenous language for evangelization and daily communication in indigenous communities. This policy lead to a separation of colonial society into a minority of Spanish/creole Spanish-speakers governing an indigenous majority speaking one of many indigenous languages. The separation became so great that it all but halted the Hispanization of rural areas and created local indigenous elites with considerable autonomy from the central adminstration. A reassertion of central authority commenced in 1770 when Carlos III declared Spanish to be the only language of the Empire and ordered the administrative, judicial and ecclesiastic authorities to extinguish all others. After Independence, the new nations and their successors maintained the offical status of Spanish as a means of strengthening national unity and pursuing modernization through education. This tendency was reinforced at the turn of the century through the 1940’s with notions of Social Darwinism, in which the vigorous hybrid groups of Latin America would eventually overcome the ‘weaker’ indigenous groups. It is only since World War II that this policy has suffered any substantial change.

Several processes converged in the post-War period to shake the linguistic status quo. One is the growth of industrialization, which requires an educated workforce and thus lends urgency to effective education. Another is agrarian reform, which raises the social status of the farmer while increasing his need for vocational training. These two processes create a growing pressure to learn the language of technology and mechanization, Spanish. As a counterpoint to this pressure, there was an understanding among policy makers of the failure of the pre-War incorporationist policies to acheive their goal of Hispanization. The confluence of these tendencies was a shift towards the usage of indigenous languages in primary schools to ease the transition to Spanish. Moreover, the dynamic of questioning the entire model of development grew, a dynamic that was reinforced by the emergence of indigenous activists educated in the new national schools. These contradictions came to a head during the labor and peasant movements of the 1950’s and 60’s, where calls for the preservation of indigenous languages served as a vehicle for the preservation of entire indigenous societies. The subsequent official response to these movements had diverse outcomes throughout Latin America. In Mexico, the new indigenous consciousness continued to grow unabated, as it did among the Bolivian Aymara and Ecuadorian Quechua, and to a lesser extent among the other Quechua speakers of Bolivia and Peru. Elsewhere, many organizations were driven into marginality or outright armed resistence, with the paradoxical result that often the only officially-tolerated supporters of indigenous languages were foreigners: scholars pursuing linguistic or anthropological fieldwork, linguists trained by the Summer Institute of Linguistics for the translation and dissemination of Christian texts, or members of other non-governmental organizations engaged in aid or relief work.

Only recently have indigenous defensors of indigenous languages found any standing on the national stage. This new tolerance has been said to reflect the neo-liberal reforms required as conditions for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since the early 1990’s, with the threat of Communist takeover having receeded. There are now a multitude of protective measures that go from bilingual primary education (Honduras), to constitutional protection (Columbia), to the establishment of indigenous languages as co-official with Spanish (Guatemala).

With respect to the status of Spanish among native speakers, Independence lead to the creation of national educational institutions and a desire to reform Spanish orthography so as to facilitate its learning by American speakers, as well as to foster a literary tradition independent of Spain. Such reforms come to little in the face of the turbulence created by Independence, but a second round of standardization began as part of the modernization process initiated around 1870. Increasing immigration to Latin America and the strengthening of trends towards democratization lead to the fear among the intellectual elite that the linguistic unity of Latin America would collapse into a cacophomy of local variants, much as the Latin of the Roman Empire fragmented into the variety of Romance languages.

The final threat to the official status of Spanish is the growing contact with other European languages: with English throughout Latin America, and with Portuguese along the southern border of Brazil. Contact with English arises through migration to the United States for economic or political reasons or sojourns for business or education. This contact is particularily acute in the case of Puerto Rico, where its adminstrative dependency on the United States has led to an extensive diffusion of English, as well as the threatened imposition of English as the official language should Puerto Rico ever gain statehood. This threat has sparked intellectual debates that echo the Spanish-vs.-indigenous-language debates heard on the mainland: language is an expression of identity, perhaps the fundmental expression of identity, and it should not be given up lightly.

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last revised April 2, 1998