Yamanik Cholotio: My name is Yamanik Cholotio, I am from Guatemala and I work at the Guatemalan Federation of Radio Schools (FGER), which is an organization that brings together and works with community radios, which are autonomous radios that use the languages of the region in their multilingual radio programs. I’m a communicator, an indigenous feminist woman, and I work on the issue of communication, women and management at the local level.
Claudia Pozo: Yamanik, tell us a little about the current context of indigenous languages in Guatemala.
Yamanik Cholotio: In Guatemala there are 25 languages from which 24 are native. 22 of them are Mayan and the rest are Xinca, Garifuna and Spanish. Although there are 24 native languages, Spanish is the one that predominates. There are 2, 3 languages (or maybe a little more), that are spoken by less than 300 people. There are 5 major indigenous languages which are K’ichel, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Q’eqchil and Mam. K’ichel, Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil have different variants but there are words which mean the same. The Q’eqchil and Mam are quite different. Taking into account that K’ichel, Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil have the same variants, more content or tools have been developed on the internet on these languages. One that I highlight is the Wikipedia in Kaqchikel that is still in the bubble: it has not yet been able to go out because there are people who speak the language but do not write it. So that’s a barrier for not being able to continue producing content on Wikipedia in Kaqchikel.
There are also people who use their language in commercial digital networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and now they are getting into Instagram. There are YouTube channels with content in K’ichel as well. Also, there are people creating content in these commercial networks in Tz’utujil. There is a dictionary that is being developed in Q’anjob’al and in K’ichel, but with a certain limit of words. Overall, the limitations are great, there are tools that are being used to continue developing the 5 major languages, but the challenge is: what are we going to do with the languages that are disappearing? If we are using these platforms for the 5 major languages, how do we use those same tools or how do we create new tools to be able to save the ones that are disappearing? Because the idea is not to stay with those 5 only, the idea is to keep the 24 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala.
Claudia Pozo: Tell us more about the experience of Wikipedia in Kaqchikel. How the did the initiative start and what is its current state?
Yamanik Cholotio: The Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, that emerges under the Peace Agreements, regulates the languages and a single variant of each. In the case of Kaqchikel Chimaltenango, the headquarters of the Kaqchikel linguistic community are located in Chimaltenango and they are in charge of regulating that language. So, a group of people who speak and write their language — who are not exactly in the academy, but are involved in projects about linguism, met with a group of people that wanted to preserve their language and had many ideas on how to do it. They met in 2007 and the idea of creating content in Kaqchikel came out. A group of about 50 people was gradually reduced to just a few who were interested in receiving online workshops on how to edit Wikipedia. Fast forward, in 2017 there is already a certain amount of uploaded articles, but Wikipedia is not well-known in the scene yet. So they organized a meeting of digital activists in Kaqchikel to publicize different projects they were doing (in other languages but mainly in Kaqchikel), and the project of the Wikipedia in Kaqchikel came out and that is when many people get interested in knowing more and once again workshops on how to edit Wikipedia are held. Finally, in 2018 a public presentation event for Wikipedia in Kaqchikel is made.
Also around that time, we organized an only women edit-a-thon, with the goal of writing 20-25 articles about women. Even though we exceeded this goal, the Wikipedia in Kaqchikel remains in the bubble because people do not write in their indigenous language. We want to replicate this experience in more languages with different linguistic communities, but since Kaqchikel is a major language (and given the fact that it remains in the bubble) it is a challenge to be able to do Wikipedia in other languages. But the experience is already there, the initiative is already there, but it does take a commitment from those who speak and write the language. Unfortunately there is a lack of interest because this work is not paid, but it is an extra amount of time that is put on top of our daily activities and work. So, it’s a project that is there, which has been one of the greatest achievements of the Kaqchikel speakers, but the challenge ahead is still huge.
Claudia Pozo: What other challenges do you identify for bringing indigenous languages into the internet, while also contributing to preserve them?
Yamanik Cholotio: The issue of discrimination is something we should talk about - and racism. Nobody is ever prepared to be a victim of racism. I think one can speak of racism when she or he wants to exercise a right but can’t do it. For example: I am using my language on the bus and someone looks at me badly or tells me something and then what I do is stay quiet, or I don’t use my traditional attire, or something like that. I think that is one of the main challenges. The second is the digital gap in indigenous communities: there is no internet connection, and if there is, they are Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram packages, and that is what people are staying with and that is why some of the content is there. So, people in the communities do not have access to the internet. Another challenge is the one we mentioned earlier: there are people who speak an indigenous language but do not write it, so there is a sort of illiteracy in the indigenous communities, and it’s not due to lack of interest, but because in the indigenous communities there is lack of education, food, etc., so it’s quite difficult in that context that people will be able to learn to write their language.
Claudia Pozo: In this landscape, it seems that there are indigenous communities working with languages and technologies on the one hand, and on the other hand there are tech communities developing tools and platforms. Do you think these can be bridged? What would we need for achieving that?
Yamanik Cholotio: Yes, I believe that a bridge can be built. Ultimately I think that is what people who are working on the issue of indigenous languages and technology are asking for: that platforms are more accessible to indigenous communities. For instance that they take into account the signs, the dieresis, and other symbols that are highly needed — if you don’t use them it’s like you are not writing your language correctly. I think it can be done. Also, there is a need to be able to continue translating the platforms on the internet, and this poses a question that is not being asked: the issue of questioning whether Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, or Facebook, translated into your indigenous language, makes sense, makes you feel good, or not, whether it’s a necessity or not. For many people, for example Firefox that is already translated into Kaqchikel, is a necessity, but is it appropriate technology or not?. I think the point is being able to create interest from tech communities towards the indigenous communities, who are already doing a lot, and articulate more so that the indigenous languages are present on the internet.
Claudia Pozo: Thank you so much for your time, it’s been lovely talking to you Yamanik. Do you have comments or something else you’d like to add before saying goodbye?
Yamanik Cholotio: Thank you to everybody who listened to us, and let’s continue supporting languages and appropriate technologies. Perhaps something that I want to stress: that indigenous communities do not want to say or publish everything. There is a matter of respect towards the recognition of our knowledge, and towards what we want to publish – and what we don’t. I believe these are issues that technological communities should have in mind as well. Many thanks.