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At a glance: Guatemala

Bilingual-intercultural education aims to keep indigenous girls and boys in school

UNICEF Image: Guatemala, bilingual education
© UNICEF Guatemala/2007/Arteaga
Guatemalan children learn in two languages, K’iche’ and Spanish, at the UNICEF-supported NEUBI school in Sacualpa, in the state of Quiche.

By Blue Chevigny

PANAJACHEL, Guatemala, 29 August 2007 – Here on the shores of Guatemala’s beautiful Lake Atitlan, a group of educators, organizers and young people gathered earlier this month for the Forum on Bilingual-Intercultural Education.

Organized by UNICEF and its partners, including the Ministry of Education, the forum started off with a group of about 20 girls and boys singing the Guatemalan national anthem and a song about how hard it can be to grow up as a girl. They were all dressed in traditional Mayan clothing.

Proponents of bilingual-intercultural education here are calling for classrooms that teach both Spanish and the dominant Mayan language spoken in the area.

“It’s been proven by several studies that a child develops better intelligence, better abilities of all kinds, if he learns in his mother tongue,” said UNICEF Guatemala Assistant Education Officer Ana Maria Sanchez. “It’s is very much related to the idea of child rights. The child has the right to use her own language to learn, and the right to develop within her own culture.”

Respect for cultural diversity

Ministry of Education Departmental Director Marcelino Ajcabul Ramirez – who is from an indigenous background – also participated in the forum.

“First we have to recognize that we are a diverse country, and that every linguistic group, every population, has its own way of understanding life. And this way of understanding life is communicated through the language,” he told UNICEF Radio.

But a total of 22 indigenous languages are actively used in Guatemala. How can respect for this level of cultural diversity be expressed in education? New Unitary Bilingual-Intercultural Education, or NEUBI, is a UNICEF-supported model that may provide an answer.

“The classrooms in the NEUBI schools are made up of ‘learning corners’ in different areas,” explained Jose Miguel Medrano Rojas, an advocate of this approach. “The student can go to the different learning corners and learn something at any moment. In this way, it’s very active and participatory.”

UNICEF Image: Guatemala, bilingual education
© UNICEF Guatemala/2007/Arteaga
Children sing the Guatemalan national anthem at the opening of the Forum on Bilingual-Intercultural Education in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Model school in Quiche

UNICEF Representative in Guatemala Manuel Manrique said everything in NEUBI schools, from classroom structure to homework, must be culturally specific.

“Schools have to adapt to the conditions and circumstances of the population” and should “be much more flexible in their curriculum,” he noted. “Teachers should be facilitators who make it possible for students to acquire the abilities and capacities they need.”

One example of the NEUBI model in action is a school in Sacualpa, in the state of Quiche – an area that was affected profoundly by more than 30 years of civil strife that ravaged Guatemala until the mid-1990s. Nowadays, administrators like Sacualpa’s School Director Orfaliz Giron Perez face the challenge of keeping students, especially girls, in school.

“When they finish sixth grade, we try to convince them to continue studying,” she said. “It’s a shame that sometimes girls at around age 13 stop coming to school. They are taken away to work, or they get married.”

Literacy in two languages

UNICEF and others assert that bilingual-intercultural education, combined with the efforts of dedicated teachers, can keep both girls and boys in school longer.

“We believe that if a child attends an educational programme in her own language, the child feels more comfortable, more relaxed,” said Ms. Sanchez. “We hope that with bilingual education, children invest more in the school and stay in school.”

Clara Morales de Medrano teaches a second-grade class in a combination of Spanish and K’iche’, the mother tongue of her students. She believes that they will ultimately master reading, speaking and writing in both languages, which will serve them well as adults.

“It’s very sad that sometimes people like us, indigenous people, feel ashamed, or we don't want to put our culture into practice,” she said. “I never had bilingual education as a student. And at my school there was a lot of discrimination. I had a teacher who I will never forget because I couldn't do the homework and she rejected me.

“That's something I would never want – that my students remember me that way.”




24 August 2007: UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny reports on efforts to keep Guatemala’s many indigenous students in school through bilingual-intercultural education.
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