Caribbean indigenous languages of Nicaragua at risk of extinction

The Tuahka variant of the Mayangna language is threatened in Caribbean Coast communities, along with Kriole, Garífuna, Rama, Ulwa, and even Miskitu, the most spoken indigenous language in the country

Lenguas indígenas
Illustration by Divergentes

In the community of Wasakín, in the municipality of Rosita, North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN), an ancient treasure, a cultural relic that has resisted for years, is now more at risk than ever: the tuahka variant of the Mayangna language.

There is no formal census on how many indigenous people in this area speak the language, but community leaders consulted by DIVERGENTES estimate it to be less than 30%. In this and other indigenous communities in the Caribbean, their languages are being pushed to the brink of extinction, replaced by Spanish.

There are also no official data on the number of speakers of other indigenous languages such as Miskitu, Kriole, Garífuna, Rama, and Ulwa. Nowadays, belonging to these communities does not necessarily mean speaking the language.

“There are very few children speaking indigenous languages in the Caribbean now,” says Tangni, a Miskitu woman from Puerto Cabezas, RACCN, who currently leads an initiative to teach these languages and requested anonymity.

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According to her, Spanish is almost entirely spoken in urban areas of the Caribbean, and in rural communities, it is mainly the adults or elderly who speak the language.

“In these communities, children and young people speak Spanish as their first language. In schools, whether public or private, primary or high school, they always teach in Spanish. The conservation of our languages is not promoted, and we are losing them,” she expresses.

The conservation and promotion of Caribbean indigenous languages are the last concerns of the Nicaraguan state, other community leaders consulted denounce, as there is currently no state intervention for their preservation.

According to Tangni, the government organizes many cultural activities on the Caribbean Coast. “Many,” she emphasizes, but none related to language conservation. “Yes, there are many cultural activities. There are many dances, among other things, but none of it has to do with the essence of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean,” she adds.

Those who try to fight for these ancestral languages are silenced by the regional government authorities, who in the last elections on March 3, 2024, fully submitted to the Sandinista regime, which claimed 88.95% of the votes. These recent elections were held without the participation of any indigenous political party.

Education in the Caribbean is in spanish

Caribbean indigenous languages of Nicaragua at risk of extinction
Indigenous people say that classes prioritize English over indigenous languages | Divergentes Archive

“The impact of the disappearance of our languages will be the disappearance of our peoples,” says Virgilio, a Mayangna community leader, who also requested anonymity, and is dedicated to teaching Tuahka.

One of the complaints from indigenous communities is that they are forced to receive their education in Spanish, weakening their native languages and confining their use within families exclusively.

“The educational system has fragmented and weakened our language. They teach us a foreign language that is not that of our indigenous peoples. The state’s interest is to subject indigenous peoples to their interests, and part of that has to do with language. You cannot submit to a group that does not speak your language,” he notes.

In almost all Caribbean schools, classes are taught in spanish, as is the didactic material provided to students; despite Law 162, the Official Use of Languages of the Communities of the Caribbean Coast Law, which states that communities have the right to receive education in their native languages.

The law also states that the languages of Caribbean communities should be officially used in the autonomous regions. In reality, Spanish is the language used not only in educational institutions but also in other institutions managed by regional governments.

The Regional Autonomous Education System (SEAR), led by the Ministry of Education (Mined), should also guarantee a Bilingual Intercultural Education Program (PEBI) or Bilingual Intercultural Education (EBI), meaning teaching in both the community’s official language and Spanish. “But that system has nothing educational or autonomous about it,” says Virgilio.

“SEAR is a mechanism created to make the population believe that the state is working for indigenous communities and their well-being, but it is not. From there, they teach a didactic methodology that has nothing to do with the use and preservation of indigenous languages,” he explains.

Indigenous languages confined to a couple of classes

Caribbean indigenous languages of Nicaragua at risk of extinction
According to community leaders, not all indigenous languages are prioritized in classes | Divergentes Archive

Despite Law 162 and SEAR indicating that it is the right of indigenous peoples to receive education in their own language and developed based on their cultural identity, indigenous languages are limited to a couple of classes. In some schools, these classes are called Mother Tongue.

“Mined imposes the methodological guide on teachers, and although they present bilingual education plans, teachers are always required to speak spanish. Now, our language is only being used in our homes, but not in educational levels, where it should be strengthened,” says Virgilio.

In addition, not all Caribbean indigenous languages are prioritized by schools in the few classes not taught in Spanish. Although the use of Miskitu has also declined among younger generations, according to Tangni, it is the most taught.

Due to this lack of priority among languages, Virgilio notes that the Tuahka variant of the Mayagna language is one of the most threatened, as there are three variants of this language in Nicaragua: Panamahka, the most spoken; Yusku; and Tuahka.

The Mayangna language has been one of the most vulnerable and deteriorated languages in communities in recent years, according to the study The Mayangna Language: 30 Years After the Beginning of Linguistic Activities in the Community, by researchers Elena Benedicto and Elizabeth Salomón.

According to the research, PEBI taught in Mayangna was provided up to the fourth grade of primary school in 2010, despite Law 162 stating it should be up to high school.

Classes were taught with textbooks for all subjects written in Mayangna, including reading and writing materials. However, at the end of that year, the state, already under the administration of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, stopped reprinting these books, and schools were forced to use books in spanish. Consequently, classes were also taught in this language.

The researchers noted that “the most worrying thing is that this happens in linguistically strong communities, raising the question of what happens in linguistically vulnerable communities.”

Local initiatives lack state support

Virgilio notes that different territorial leaders have proposed new reforms for EBI to SEAR, but these have been constantly rejected for years. “What happens is that every time one makes proposals to state agencies, they counter-propose and reject yours,” he notes.

Tangni, on the other hand, indicates that just publicly complaining about the current situation of indigenous languages is a “danger,” the danger of being seen as a political dissident against the Ortega-Murillo regime.

“Even if we want to raise our voices, they will not be heard. The state is doing nothing to preserve the languages, but there are local initiatives. Communities are trying to preserve the language and its originality, as the languages have also undergone changes,” she says.

This is why Tangni teaches Miskitu and Mayangna through her educational initiative, and Virgilio is dedicated to transmitting the Mayangna community’s knowledge through a community leadership school, where, in addition to the language, he teaches the beliefs and ways of seeing the world of his people.

The problem with all these initiatives is the difficulty in maintaining them, both in personnel and economic resources. “There is no support for groups that want to rescue our culture. We need people dedicated to this because the path we are on will lead us to lose our language, identity, and customs,” he expresses.

Young people are not interested in learning indigenous languages

Virgilio notes that many young people drop out halfway through the courses, and only a few remain until the end. “Since it is a self-effort initiative, there are no resources. Sometimes students lack interest. At the end of the course, we end up with three or four, but that is an achievement because there will be a fruitful transcendence of our knowledge,” he says.

“For the state, these initiatives are a threat because you will train young people and children so that they never disconnect from their culture and their people. For them, it is more beneficial for an indigenous community to lose its traditional way of life, its lands, and everything that could compromise their concession and logging projects,” he adds.

Tangni notes that while the Miskitu and Mayangna peoples have resisted to preserve their language, other peoples whose languages have been marginalized are on the brink of disappearance, like the Ulwa people. “I only know one person who speaks Ulwa. It is a language that is about to disappear,” she says.

The information we publish in DIVERGENTES comes from contrasted sources. Due to the situation in the region, many times, we are forced to protect them under pseudonymity or anonymity. Unfortunately, some governments in the region, including the Nicaraguan regime, do not provide information or censor independent media. For this reason, despite requesting it, we cannot rely on official, authorized versions. We resort to data analysis, anonymous internal sources, or limited information from the official media. These are the conditions under which we exercise a profession that, in many cases, costs us our safety and our lives. We will continue to report.