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Can Quechua Survive?

Quechua has been spoken in Perú since it became the unifying language of the Inca Empire 600 years ago. As the most widely spoken autochthonous language of Perú, it is considered to be an official language along with Spanish. Statistics vary, but the number of Quechua speakers in Perú is estimated at four and a half million, approximately 19 percent of the total population. (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática: Censos Nacionales 1993) Some regions are predominantly Quechua speaking. In the Department of Cusco,(1) for example, Quechua speakers comprise almost 64 percent of the population: 39 percent in urban centers and 86 percent in rural areas.

In spite of the prevalence and the antiquity of the Quechua language, however, Spanish is the language of power in all regions of Perú, even those in which there are more Quechua speakers than Spanish speakers. Many Quechua-speaking Peruvians need to learn Spanish in order to function in their own country, as the latter is the language of commerce, education, and government.

The negative attitude many Spanish-speaking Peruvians have toward the Quechua language and those who speak it makes matters worse. Many view Quechua, an oral language generally considered to be difficult if not impossible to write, as an archaic language spoken by Indians. There exists a strange dichotomy between the pride in the history and culture of the Inca Empire (promoted by government and tourist sectors) and the disdain with which the living descendants of this empire are regarded. The unfortunate result of these attitudes is that many Quechua speakers hide their linguistic roots. Speaking a fractured Spanish with their children, who learn to speak neither Quechua nor Spanish well, they prefer to pass as Spanish speakers.

In the city of Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire and now the departmental capital, Quechua is rarely seen in the media. Not a single newspaper or magazine is published in Quechua; the only written Quechua to be found is in academic works on linguistic or literary topics, or in songbooks for musicians. The national university in Cusco offers only two courses in Quechua, for degrees in medicine and pedagogy. Quechua is taught in only one private school in Cusco. The Academy of the Quechua Language languishes for lack of government support; its members, mostly retirees, give of their time for love of the language. A few radio stations do broadcast music, news, or personal announcements for people in isolated communities; all of these stations, however, are either private or partially financed by NGOs; they are not protected in any way by the government.

Unless steps are taken to promote the Quechua language in the public sectors, the real possibility exists that it will decline in importance to the point that it is no longer used with any frequency, as has been the fate of minority languages in many countries.

Governmental Policies Then and Now

The Peruvian government has not been unsympathetic, but its efforts to promote and protect Quechua have been sporadic and superficial at best. In 1975, the idealistic military government of General Velasco made Quechua an official language in areas with high numbers of Quechua speakers. For a few years, the language was taught in public schools, but this was a second-language program aimed at Spanish speakers; its purpose was to raise the profile of Quechua rather than to implement true bilingual education. This program disappeared with successive changes in government.

Now, 25 years later, the Ministry of Education in the city of Cusco is laying the groundwork for another program in primary education. Optimistically called "bilingual and bicultural," it appears on close examination to be neither bilingual nor bicultural. Its stated goals are: (1) the introduction of Quechua as the language of instruction for Quechua-speaking children in rural areas, and (2) the maintenance and preservation of the Quechua culture. Yet policy-makers have adopted a program of transition for the children involved, with no consideration of the possibility of implementing a truly bilingual program of maintenance. (With reference to bilingual education, a program of transition is one in which children learn in their native language for as long as it will take them to become fluent in the dominant language, which then becomes the language of instruction. A maintenance program uses both languages concurrently.) All instruction in grades one and two is to be in Quechua, but from grade three, Spanish will be phased in. At no point is the desired result -- the hispanicization of these children and their absorption into mainstream Spanish-speaking culture -- questioned.

The common experience for a child from a Quechua-speaking background is to be plunged into a Spanish-speaking school environment at the age of five or six. By grade four or five, most are able to speak Spanish, but many never learn to read well and few go on to secondary school. By implementing a program that addresses the number of children, especially in rural areas, who face the difficulties of learning in what is for them a foreign language, the government is taking a step in the right direction.

The policy as it stands has many limitations, however. Since the program's main goal appears to be to incorporate minority children as quickly as possible into the Spanish-speaking mainstream, it will do little to effect real change in the prevailing perception of Quechua as a second-class language. In practical terms, too, the program may not be well conceived. Although the Ministry states, for instance, that its strategies include the elaboration of materials and workshops in Quechua for teachers, the only materials developed to date have been didactic manuals. There are no readers or other materials for students and no signs as yet of training or support for teachers.

The Peruvian government has always been prone to implementing "top-down" policies that may be misunderstood and resisted by those who should benefit from them. It is clear that there will need to be increased and sensitive consultation with government officials, and real input and participation from the Quechua-speaking communities, for any such program to be effective.

Community Attitudes

In interviews in Cusco and in surrounding rural communities, Quechua speakers and teachers commented on: (1) their personal experience of the Quechua language, and (2) whether Quechua should indeed be promoted in their schools or the communities they lived in.


Thirty-four teachers working in schools ranging from reasonably well-appointed urban schools through semi-urban to impoverished rural schools were interviewed. All of the teachers were either native Quechua speakers or had learned Quechua as their only means of communicating with their students.

When asked for a wish list, the teachers' requests were for didactic materials for classroom use and for training courses in the Quechua language, two basic needs not being met by the government. Almost without exception, the teachers firmly believed that the best way to teach Quechua-speaking children is in their own language, at least throughout primary education (though a significant number also support programs of maintenance through secondary school). Their experiences with the academic problems suffered by minority-language children in a majority-language system support current pedagogical research showing that these children progress significantly more slowly than majority-language children and tend to drop out of school more frequently.(2)

Teachers working with Quechua-speaking children in a Spanish-language framework face many additional challenges. Most of them are young women, often poorly trained and badly paid. Those who work in rural areas feel a great sense of isolation and a need for improved communication with government departments, whose staff tend to be urbanites with no real understanding of these isolated and often monolingual Communities. The teachers frequently make heroic efforts to cope with the difficult situation in which they work; many of them use their own money to create teaching aids. They are, however, often overwhelmed by lack of support, few teaching aids, isolation, and poor remuneration; frustration and burnout are common results.

Parents in Rural Communities

There are enormous differences in terms of literacy and general sophistication between Quechua speakers living in traditional agricultural communities (comuneros) and those who were born in or have migrated to urban areas. Not one of the comuneros interviewed had studied beyond primary school, and many of the women were illiterate. Six had some Spanish, while the others were monoglots. People living in rural areas often have little contact with the Spanish-speaking world, and they tend to compartmentalize uses of Spanish and Quechua: Spanish is used for traveling to Cusco, in schools, with the government, at hospitals, or in other areas of perceived authority. Quechua is the language of daily communication with family and community. A mistrust of most government officials exists among monolingual Quechua-speakers as a result of a long history of repression and exploitation. Many of the comuneros have had unpleasant experiences with those in positions of authority, and they tend to believe the idea that if those authorities want Quechua to be used in schools, they must intend to keep the children ignorant and backward. This belief may result in resistance to the use of Quechua in schools on the part of parents who want their children to be taught only in Spanish, the language of progress and of power.

Teachers did comment that parents are opposed to the implementation of bilingual education. Clearly, however, it is important to examine closely the reasons behind this resistance. During discussions with the comuneros about the pedagogic reasons for teaching a child in his or her native language (using examples from countries where bilingual education has been successfully implemented), the idea of using Quechua as well as and not instead of Spanish became more reasonable. The thought that they themselves might also learn to read in their own language took root.

Migrants and Urbanites

Although the government is taking some steps toward implementing a bilingual program in rural areas, the linguistic needs of a sizeable population of Quechua speakers who have migrated from rural to urban areas are not being met (see also Oliveira, this issue).

A group of ten newly-urbanized Quechua-speakers -- all women and parents who spend part or all of their time in Cusco working in small, family-run businesses or selling their products in the markets or to tourists -- were interviewed. Quechua speakers by birth, these women are now bilingual, and in comparison with rural dwellers, sophisticated in their interactions with modern society. Though their children are generally enrolled in schools in the city, some may spend part of the year in their home communities; their education is thus fragmented. The children often have to work from a young age in order to help support the family (city schools now recognize this reality and some offer evening classes for working children). All of these entrepreneurs are aware of the benefits of education. They support the idea of bilingual education in the schools, even through secondary school, and would like to see greater exposure of Quechua in the media.(3) With the pragmatism that enables them to survive, they do not dispute the need for Spanish, but they still value Quechua for its historicity and because it is "theirs."

In spite of this positive outlook, however, signs of language death are present.(4) Urban residents all claimed to speak Quechua at home with their children, but in some cases they admitted that the children do not speak the language well. Many of the children were uncomfortable in Quechua; some did not speak the language or preferred to use Spanish, a preference probably due to the common perception of Quechua speakers as uneducated and inferior to Spanish speakers. Approximately half of the parents commented that their relatives no longer wish to speak Quechua; that they consider it "ugly," or "are ashamed," or do not want to appear to be "from the country." More than half said that people in the rural communities from which they had migrated do not use Quechua as much as they used to. If these women and children are representative of those from other urban and semi-urban areas, it would appear that the use of Quechua is declining. The increasing migration to and contact with urban areas in the past decades bode ill for the active survival of the language.

The linguistic pattern evidenced among these migrants in Cusco illustrates a process especially common among migrants to urban areas from traditional agricultural societies and typical of areas where language decline and death have taken place. The pattern operates in the following way: grandparents speak only the traditional language; parents speak both the native language and the language of assimilation, and their children become monolingual in the assimilated language.

Future Direction

In order for Quechua to be strengthened and promoted in Perú, negative attitudes toward the language, ingrained over centuries by the Spanish-speaking elite, must be reversed; initiatives to reinforce the daily use of Quechua and, as a consequence, its presence as a living entity in Peruvian society should be implemented.

The Ministry of Education's bilingual program needs improved planning and implementation. It is of prime importance to promote the use of Quechua in schools, albeit in maintenance rather than in transition programs (as is current policy). For these programs to be successful, however, certain other steps must be taken. The most important is to win parental support for bilingual language programs. To this end, consultation and sensitization sessions for both parents and teachers should be held. This policy must not be seen as another idea imposed by authorities that will result in greater separation of Quechua-speakers from modern Perú. Rather, it must be viewed as a joint effort to make the educational experience a positive one for every child, with the full consultation and participation of parents, teachers, and government.

To ensure the effectiveness of this new teaching program, teachers must be supported with teaching materials and workshops.

Quechua in its written form for the use of adult speakers should also be promoted. The perception currently exists that Quechua is a difficult if not impossible language to write. Academics waste much time and energy debating the value of three versus five vowels in written Quechua. This kind of debate is ultimately counterproductive, as it diverts attention from truly urgent issues. If literacy equals power, Quechua must be available not just in academic contexts in its written form, but integrated into daily life and made accessible to everyone in the form of newspapers, magazines, and informative government pamphlets.(5) Adult literacy classes, especially for women, Could be productively integrated into this type of initiative.

The broadcast media is another area in which the government could be supportive, by funding television and especially radio programs in Quechua. The radio has long been used for the dissemination of information to outlying villages. Without government funding, however, radio stations broadcasting in Quechua are vulnerable to market pressures.(6)

Negative attitudes toward Quechua cannot easily be banished by government edict. Nevertheless, directing government resources toward raising the profile of Quechua in a sensitive way, with constant consultation with Quechua-speakers, is a crucial first step in renewing and reinforcing people's pride in their own language.


It has been estimated that half of the languages extant today will disappear during the next century. Although a superficial glance gives the impression that Quechua is not in imminent danger, a closer look reveals that within the Peruvian context, Quechua plays a secondary role to Spanish. What support it receives from the government is mainly theoretical. As we move into the twenty-first century -- with increasing internal migration to urban centers, and with technology playing an ever-growing role in the homogenization of cultures -- the Quechua language will in all likelihood continue to lose ground. A real danger is that people, mollified by current government efforts to institute "bilingual" education in some primary schools, will assume that these efforts are sufficient. If Quechua is to play a true role as an official language of Perú, only the first steps on a long journey have been taken.

(1). Departments, further divided into provinces, are the administrative divisions of Perú.

(2). See, for example, Hornberger, 1989.

(3). All of the women say they listen daily to one of the few radio programs in Quechua, Warmikuna rimanchis (Women speaking).

(4). For a discussion of language death, see Edwards, 1985.

(5). A strong case is made for the importance of publishing as a tool for language preservation in Bernard, 1996.

(6). The media can, unfortunately, be a two-edged sword. If the government does become involved in Quechua radio and television, it will likely aim programming at the much larger Spanish-speaking audience, which would result in more slick television programs of Andean music and dance, almost all broadcast from Lima.

References & further reading:

Bernard, H.R. (1996). Language Preservation and Publishing. In Indigenous Literacies in the Americas. N.H. Hornberger, Ed. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp 139-156.

Edwards, J. (1985). Language, Society and Identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd.

Grenoble, L.A. & Whaley, L.J., Eds. (1998). Endangered Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hornberger, N. (1989). Haku yachaywasiman: la educación bilingüe y el futuro del quechua en Puno. Lima-Puno: Programa de Educación Bilingüe en Puno.

Nettle, D. & Romaine, S.P. (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages. New York: USA Oxford University Press.

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