Sofia Checchi ’23 CaMD Spotlight Presentation Highlights Indigenous Latin American Language Revitalization Movements

In her presentation Sofia Checchi ’23 spoke on the decline of Indigenous languages due to “the expectations of a modern Spanish-speaking society.”

“Language is intrinsic to the expression of knowledge, values, beliefs, and customs,” Sofia Checchi ’23 said as she began her presentation–the first of the 2022-2023 CaMD Topic Spotlights. Titled “Linguistic Survival Against Assimilation,” Checchi’s 40-minute talk on the background and breakdown of Indigenous language revitalization movements in Latin America took place in the Underwood Room on Tuesday, October 18. 

Checchi explained her topic as examining the relationships between three different Indigenous languages. Each of the languages is primarily spoken in modern-day Latin America. 

“My presentation is comparing and contrasting three different [Indigenous] language revitalization movements. I’m looking at Nahuatl, which is spoken in central Mexico, Guaraní, which is spoken in Paraguay, and Quechua, which is spoken in a lot of Latin America, but it’s mostly Peru and Ecuador,” said Checchi. 

Using iconographs, pronunciation tools, immersive videos, and historical context on the relationship between Indigenous languages and government policies, Checchi provided a glimpse into the political aspects of language revitalization. 

“These languages have been on the decline for centuries due to pressure to meet the expectations of a modern Spanish-speaking society that excludes Indigenous communities, their languages, and [their] cultures. Families choose not to transmit these languages to their children for fear of placing them at a social, political, or economic disadvantage, fueled by the centuries of economic and racial discrimination,” said Checchi.

Attendees expressed that they left feeling more educated about the issues surrounding endangered Indigenous Latin American languages. According to Elena Dainora Cohen ’23, Checchi’s presentation addressed the topic effectively. 

“I had some knowledge about language decline and how a lot of Indigenous languages [had] fewer and fewer speakers. But I thought that what she said about the efforts to revitalize these languages and teach them in schools was really interesting,” said Dainora Cohen.

Another attendee, Isa Matloff ’24, was inspired to think about how Indigenous language decline in Latin America could translate into conversation about endangered languages in the United States of America. Matloff acknowledged that there is negative bias towards non-English languages in the U.S. as a whole. 

“In America, since we have so much prejudice against other languages in general, we don’t really understand the intricacies behind those other cultures and the languages attached to them, and how there could be multiple [Indigenous] languages corresponding to that language that are also being oppressed,” said Matloff. 

Checchi expressed her gratitude towards Clara Isaza-Bishop, her faculty advisor and an Instructor in Spanish.

“I’m most excited to share this moment with my [faculty] advisor, Ms. Clara Isaza-Bishop, and have this be the culmination of all our hard work. And I would definitely say [this is] such an amazing opportunity to share insight on something I’m super passionate about,” said Checchi.

Checchi explained her struggles with her research. Due to the nature of her topic, Checci was not able to enjoy the traditional route of using popular online databases.

“I knew what I wanted to research. I also knew that for these [projects], they usually want you to rely on databases like JSTOR, EBSCO…. So I looked through a lot of those databases and tried to find anything I could on language revitalization movement, and it was not easy. I tried to get help from the OWHL (Oliver Wendell Holmes Library) and the Peabody, and they also had very limited resources. Because this is such a niche topic, it took a lot of time to research and find articles that were pertaining to what I was researching,” said Checchi.

Checchi also touched on how her cultural background inspired her to delve into her topic. Seeing her own relatives’ relationships with their native languages inspired her to speak on the subject. 

“I was born in a multicultural and multilingual family. My great-grandparents immigrated from Colombia and Italy, and when they did, they decided not to pass down their native languages to their children because they were worried about [assimilation. As a result] a linguistic and cultural barrier was formed in these generations,” said Checchi.

When asked about what she hopes are the key takeaways from her presentation, Checchi drew from her personal experiences as a multilinguist. According to Checchi, language is a significant part of identity that should be seen as relevant globally.

“Being trilingual, if I missed one [language], I would be missing a huge part of my identity. And I think that’s what these Indigenous communities are feeling now, now that they’re starting to not like their Indigenous language, or that it’s not being passed on. It’s not being transmitted, schools aren’t teaching it. I really want people to understand, like the importance of language in general, and also kind of be conscious that this is going on. It’s a very niche topic [but] it’s something that is applicable to a lot of places. It goes beyond Latin America, and into the whole world,” said Checchi.