Where in the World is ELAR: Training in Oaxaca, Mexico

From December 16th-22nd 2017, ELDP ran an intensive week-long language documentation training for Mexican linguists in Oaxaca City, Mexico. The training was held in collaboration with Roberto Zavala and Gilles Pollian of CIESAS Sureste and graciously hosted by Michael Swanton of UNAM at the Juan de Cordova Research Library in Oaxaca.

-Silviano Jiménez

The team representing ELDP was Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Vera Ferreira, Gema Zamora and Bill Parker.

-Silviano Jiménez

The ELDP team was excited to hold this training in Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca. 6% of the population of Mexico speak an indigenous languages, of which there are 287. The highest concentration of speakers of indigenous languages is in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Over half of the Mexican indigenous-language speaking population resides in Oaxaca, where they make up more than a third of the state’s total population. Oaxaca has given Mexico two presidents, Porfirio Diaz and Benito Juarez, both native speakers of Zapotec languages, and contributed to the national culture through its unique blend of European and indigenous cultures.

-Silviano Jiménez

Some prominent ethnic groups of Oaxaca are Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, Chinantec, Mixe and Chatino. For each of these ethnic groups, there are corresponding groups of languages, with a great deal of variation. This variety is reflected in the dazzlingly diverse culture of the state: artisanship is highly respected and each town prides itself on local designs of textiles, earthenware and other handicrafts.

-Silviano Jiménez

This training aimed to meet the demands of local scholars, well versed in linguistics and fieldwork, but eager to learn more about the technical aspects of language documentation. Adapting a training to the Mexican context also meant learning to go with the flow! We learned to contend with marching bands passing by the library during audio training, how to buy and hang a piñata, and to savour the taste of chapulines. During this training, the ELAR team encountered a young generation of scholars who are speakers of indigenous languages, committed to providing lasting records of their languages for further study within their communities and academia at large.

Academics at all career stages were present, from Masters’ students to professors. Among these were speakers and specialists of a wide variety of languages from five different language families from all parts of Mexico (Uto-Aztecan, Oto-Manguean, Mixe-Zoquean, Totonacan, Mayan), one language isolate (Purépecha), and one speaker of Guaraní from Paraguay. The meeting of such a diverse group fuelled some great discussions.

ELDP training sessions covered the following topics:

  • Audio and sound equipment (Gema Zamora)
  • FLEx, and ELAN-FLEx-ELAN workflow (Bill Parker)
  • Grant writing (Mandana Seyfeddinipur)
  • Video for documentation (Mandana Seyfeddinipur)
  • ELAN (parallel sessions run by Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Vera Ferreira, Bill Parker)
  • Multimodality (Mandana Seyfeddinipur)
  • Ethics in Archiving (Mandana Seyfeddinipur)

-Silviano Jiménez

One thing that made this training very different from the annual ELDP grantee training was the contributions from our local collaborators. Some highlights were;

Our first day of training opened with introductory talks on language documentation by Gilles Pollian and Roberto Zavala, discussing the history of the discipline and current perspectives, with discussions of their own work in the field.

Later in the same day, Michael Swanton gave a talk on Linguistic Diversity in Mexico and language activism in Mexico, and in Oaxaca. Linguistic rights are guaranteed to speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico by the General Law of Linguistic Rights for Indigenous peoples. However, the administrative steps required by this legislation have not been taken and activists must fight to have these rights recognised in many cases. Michael gave an overview of the linguistic panorama of Mexico, and recent efforts in the sphere of digital and legal activism.

-Silviano Jiménez

Zaira Hipólito presented the digital platform Indiya, an index of legal interpreters of indigenous languages in the state of Oaxaca. By providing this information the platform aims to protect the linguistic rights of members of indigenous minorities in the judicial system. This is an important area for activism as the legal system is an area where linguistic rights are often ignored.

Sunday, December 17th was dedicated to theory and practice of lexicography. Roberto Zavala gave an overview of the history and practice of dictionary-making in Mexico and Central America. This was followed by talks by Tomás Gómez López (CIESAS) and Vera Ferreira (ELDP), who have respectively compiled multimedia dictionaries for Tseltal and Minderico. Tom shared his experiences of making the dictionary, along with the difficulties encountered along the way. Vera presented her multimedia dictionary for Minderico, as one possible model for how to organise multimedia data in a digital dictionary format. The final order of the day was Bill’s hands-on tutorial for FLEx software.

On Wednesday, Alejandro de Avila gave a tour of the stunning Ethnobotanical Gardens of Oaxaca, where attendees learned some of the basics of ethnobotanical documentation; how to collect their own vouchers of plant specimens, dry them and mark their locations with GPS. This tour was bookended by talks which made the compelling parallel between linguistic diversity and biological diversity in Mexico. Alejandro also presented on his work on the linguistic markers of plant taxonomy in some indigenous languages of Mexico. He ended his session by throwing the gauntlet to the attendees, to encourage them to investigate the language and cultural practices surrounding maize, a staple of Mexican agriculture for over 5,000 years.

-Silviano Jiménez

-Silviano Jiménez

On Thursday, Ana Smith spoke on her work with Emiliana Cruz, documenting geographical vocabulary in a Chatino-speaking community in San Juan Quiahije. She outlined the tools, techniques and ideas employed (including 3D maps and sculptures created in collaboration with the community) and gave tips on how documenters can put this into practice themselves.

On the last day of our workshop, two speakers of Mazatec (an Oto-Manguean language of Oaxaca) performed a brief demonstration of the whistled form of the language. Whistled Mazatec is used to overcome distances imposed by the mountainous geography of the Mazatec villages. The pitch of whistling mimics the tone patterns of the language, and is commonly used between friends and family members to convey greetings, questions and potentially any phrase that could be otherwise spoken.

-Silviano Jiménez

In addition to the training programme, Mandana gave a talk at the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, on the subject of ‘Safeguarding Mexico’s intangible heritage’. There she discussed the ongoing crisis of global language loss and stressed the importance of developing a national and institutional responses in Mexico.

-Silviano Jiménez

We would like to thank everyone who contributed their time, enthusiasm and expertise to making this training an unforgettable learning and teaching experience, including but not limited to Roberto Zavala, Gilles Pollian, Óscar López Nicolás, Michael Swanton, Zaira Alhelí Hipólito, Rasheny Lazcano Leyva and Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg.

-Silviano Jiménez

-By Bill Parker

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