English-Language Learners

Bilingual Education, In One Tongue

March 20, 2002 5 min read
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Schools were set up in rural villages to teach in both the native and Spanish languages. Few do.

For as long as anyone here can remember, someone has rung the church bells in this village loud and long enough at 3 a.m. each day to awaken farmers to tend to their fields. It’s also been a custom for many children in the Oaxacan village to work rather than go to school. A large share of adults, particularly the women, can’t read or write and haven’t learned much Spanish. Instead, they speak an Indian language.

But with the newest generation, school attendance practices are quickly changing in San Miguel Mixtepec and elsewhere. What’s been slower to change is the bilingual-instruction program that the federal government agreed to make readily available to assuage angry members of indigenous groups, who lamented how their children were losing their cultural identities.

Raymundo Nolasco García is enrolled in one of those bilingual schools. The 10-year-old is only in the 4th grade, but already he’s surpassed many of his family members. Raymundo’s father finished 6th grade, but his mother and his paternal grandparents, who run a small store where Raymundo hangs out every day, never attended school at all and are illiterate. When he’s with his mother or grandparents, Raymundo speaks Zapotec, an Indian language that clips along with a slight staccato rather than flows as Spanish does. In school, Raymundo speaks Spanish.

The adults in Raymundo’s life care about schooling. “It helps you to learn how to speak Spanish,” Federica García Cruz, Raymundo’s 52-year-old grandmother, says in her rudimentary Spanish. “It helps you to be able to buy things.” When her grandchildren are around, she asks them to add up the amount of money she should charge customers for such items as an avocado or bowl of homemade chicken soup.

Raymundo’s school is officially part of a system of “bilingual schools” in Mexico. In 1996, following bloody uprisings led by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, the Mexican government promised indigenous groups that their children would be educated in their native languages and learn about their own cultures.

But by most accounts, Mexico has a long way to go until most of its bilingual schools prepare students to be truly bilingual—to read and write in both their native languages and Spanish.

Only two of 10 bilingual teachers attending a university for in-service teachers in Oaxaca called Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, for example, say they use their Indian languages to provide substantial instruction in their bilingual schools. Several say they face resistance from colleagues or directors—even other indigenous educators— for using their native language in teaching because so many people are accustomed to use only Spanish in a school setting.

Their professor, Juan Julián Caballero, an Indian who speaks Mixtec, contends that Mexican politicians and education officials give lip service to the importance of bilingual education only to please international organizations such as the World Bank or the United Nations.

“The education officials are going to tell you that everything is marvelous, but in fact, you’re going to find the contrary,” he tells a visitor in a cynical tone of voice. “They don’t apply the law. Bilingual schools lack textbooks and materials and training for teachers.”

He gets no argument from Sylvia Schmelkes, the head of a new office in the Mexican Ministry of Education that promotes intercultural and bilingual schools. “We’re working slowly to increase resources to indigenous children,” she says. “The financial situation isn’t very exciting. This goes little by little.”

Schmelkes estimates that the Mexican government spends as little as a fourth the amount of money on each rural Indian child that it does on each urban middle-class child.

One big problem in promoting bilingual education is that some of the indigenous languages aren’t written down, Schmelkes says, so the Mexican government hasn’t been able to provide textbooks in those languages. Even if the languages are written, native teachers often haven’t been taught to write them, she says, because they were educated in Spanish.

Mexico has a long way to go until most of its bilingual schools prepare students to be truly bilingual.

Also hindering bilingual education, observers of the program say, is the tendency of teachers’ union and education officials to mismatch teachers and communities.

All teachers in Mexico’s bilingual schools speak an Indian language, as well as Spanish, but an estimated 35 percent are assigned to schools where the children speak an Indian language or dialect different from the teacher’s, according to Schmelkes.

In Raymundo’s bilingual school here in San Miguel Mixtepec, for example, only two of 10 teachers speak the same variant of Zapotec as the community. Artemio Santiago González, the director of the school, speaks Zapotec, but his dialect is not the same as the residents’.

Those differences, though, may be irrelevant, because the community gives only mediocre support to the use of Zapotec in school, according to Santiago. Instead, the curriculum focuses on Spanish because the variant of Zapotec spoken by this community isn’t written down. He frets about how his school has lost 15 of its 217 students since the beginning of the year to migration. And the school has only half the number of sections of 5th and 6th grades as it does lower grades, because so many children have halted their schooling to work.

Santiago envisions improvements that could be made if the school had more resources. “Oaxaca is poor,” he says. “The government sends us very little money. It should send more.”

The community recently built several new cement classrooms, but it still uses one substandard classroom of corrugated tin with a dirt floor.

That happens to be Raymundo’s 4th grade classroom.

Despite the rustic surroundings, Raymundo has a creative teacher and is learning.

During a science lesson about invertebrates, his teacher—18- year-old Hilda Raymundo Chávez—leads students to talk first about what they already know and then extend the discussion to what is foreign to them. She’s unlike some teachers in Mexico who focus solely on their presentations and seem oblivious to whether students understand the material.

When the children stumble over such Spanish words as abdomen, invertebrado, and molusco, she patiently helps them learn the new words.

The slender Zapotec woman, who wears her sleek, black hair in a ponytail rather than in long braids interwoven with brightly colored ribbons as many of the village Zapotec women do, speaks energetically while she introduces invertebrates as “los animales que no tienen huesos” (the animals that don’t have bones).

“You’ve seen ants, right?” Raymundo Chávez says. “It’s easy to identify the three parts with them. The same is true for grasshoppers.”

She notes that a lot of insects help to make food.

“For example, what do bees make?” she asks.

Miel! [Honey!]” some of the children shout out.

Both the teacher and students are Zapotec-speaking, but they stick to Spanish in school. “It’s hard to use the Zapotec,” says Raymundo Chávez after class, “because we speak a different kind of Zapotec.”

—Mary Ann Zehr

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education, In One Tongue


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