‘Our language is our soul’: saving Aymara


Aymara is more than simply a language. It is a people, culture, heritage... landofwinds.blogspot.co.uk under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Could you imagine yourself speaking a language, your mother tongue, at home and then going to school and learning a foreign language? It is a big shock,’ says Ruben Hilare, an activist from the Bolivian indigenous community of Aymara, trying to describe the reality of many children in the community.

Aymara is a language as well as a people: it is a native American language spoken by over a million people in Bolivia and several large communities in Peru, Chile and Argentina. Although it is an official language in Bolivia, it is underrepresented in the public sphere, where Spanish dominates. The only media sources exclusively in Aymara are a handful of television shows and radio programmes, while the language is taught at school for only an hour a week.

Until recently, Aymara did not have an online presence, either. But this is changing. Ruben Hilare and other community members are making an effort to save their language and promote it on the internet, establishing a virtual community called Jaqi Aru.

The goal of Jaqi Aru is to spread Aymara on the web, creating digital content (such as blogposts, videos and podcasts) and via social media. The team has already launched Wikipedia in Aymara, and has almost finished the translation of Facebook.

‘Our language is our soul. For us it is everything. It is knowledge, our parents, our heritage. Our ambition is to give the next generation the opportunity to use Aymara in every field: technology, chemistry, biology, new media,’ says Ruben. He explains that by modernizing the language and ‘constructing’ new words to respond to the needs of the 21st century, young people will be able to use their mother tongue in every aspect of their lives. ‘I remember when I was at university, professors would give me books in Spanish, and so sometimes I had to read them three or four times to understand the meaning. I do not want this to happen any more. This is the reason that I am personally involved in this project; it is an investment to Aymaran youth,’ he adds.

Elias Chura, an enthusiastic volunteer for Jaqi Aru, joined the team when he was at university: ‘It was the first time that I saw my language on the internet and I felt great. From then on I knew that I wanted to do more to support this effort.’

Some of Elias’ peers do not want to use their language. ‘They do not use it because of the prejudice, but also because in Spanish there are words for everything: technology, science... They do not understand that Aymara can be like any other language. Part of my work is to make them value our mother tongue. If we lose Aymara, we will lose our language and culture,’ says Elias.

During the 1970s and 1980s the communities that spoke the language faced severe discrimination. The situation has improved since then; now even the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, comes from the Aymara indigenous community. 

Ruben admits, though, that there is still discrimination against those who use the language. Writing Facebook posts in Aymaran has resulted in several commentators calling him and other Aymara speakers ‘peasants’.

The migration of many Aymara young people from rural areas, where indigenous communities live, to big cities, makes the transmission of the language and culture even more difficult. Using the powerful tool of the internet, Ruben and his team hope to encourage more and more young South Americans to use their mother tongue to save Aymara for future generations.

For more on endangered languages, see the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist: Save our Speech! The politics of Language Loss.