Skip to main content

International research: Preserving an indigenous language in southern Mexico

Feb 20, 2019

This is the third part in a five-part series highlighting the work of the President’s International Research Award recipients.

In the 20th century, more than 30,000 languages were spoken around the world. Today, that number has diminished to about 7,000, and experts anticipate that it will continue to drop.

But Manuel Diaz-Campos, professor in Indiana University Bloomington’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is doing his part to help preserve indigenous languages through a research project made possible with the help of IU’s President’s International Research Award.

Description of the following video:

[Words appear in upper-left corner: Indiana University presents]

[Video: An animated slide with text appears on a red background. Above the text is a thought bubble with dots in the middle of it.]

[Words appear on animated slide: In the last two centuries … ]

[Video: An animated slide with text appears on a red background. Next to the text are two thought bubbles.]

[Words appear on animated slide: … we have lost an immense amount of languages.]

Manuel Diaz-Campos, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University Bloomington, speaks in voiceover: In the last two centuries, we have lost an immense amount of languages.

[Video: Diaz-Campos appears on camera.]

[Words appear: Manuel Diaz-Campos, professor of Spanish and Portuguese]

Diaz-Campos speaks: When you lose a language, you lose a culture, you lose the traditions, you lose the identity of those cultures.

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of a group of researchers working with a Mexican villager on an iPad.]

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of a group of researchers talking with Mexican villagers. They are holding a microphone to record what they say and an iPad to record data.]

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of Diaz-Campos sitting on a bench as he interviews a Mexican villager. Diaz-Campos is holding an iPad on his lap. The villager is wearing a pair of earbuds that is connected to the iPad.]

Diaz-Campos speaks in voiceover: We are gathering data to distinguish how many varieties of the language, in this case, Cuicateco, exist in the community. And so, we are doing an experiment where speakers through iPads, through computerized means …

[Video: Diaz-Campos appears on camera.]

Diaz-Campos speaks: … select from items that are pronounced different ways depending on the community, so they have to identify …

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of a town in Mexico. You can see the mountains, with houses below in the village.]

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of researchers looking at a map of a Mexican village in an office.]

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of researchers interviewing Mexican villagers. They are sitting at a table.]

Diaz-Campos speaks in voiceover: … where these people come from depending on what they hear. We will incorporate the authorities, to see how the idea of preservation, the language preservation, can be also understood by the authorities …

[Video: Diaz-Campos appears on camera.]

Diaz-Campos speaks: … so that they can help in concrete ways to implement these ideas.

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of a group of researchers talking with Mexican villagers. They are using an iPad to record data.]

[Video: The video slowly zooms in on a photograph of a group of villagers in Mexico. A woman is cooking outdoors, using a large pot on an outdoor firepit.]

Diaz-Campos speaks in voiceover: Another aspect would be to also work with the teachers, in the creation of materials for the teaching of the language and the preservation of the language.

[Screen goes to black]

[IU trident appears]

[Words appear: Indiana University]

[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]

[Words appear:]


Diaz-Campos, whose research focuses on sociolinguistics and the relationship between language and society, is working with faculty from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as UNAM, and community leaders in rural regions of Oaxaca, Mexico, to research and preserve the Cuicateco language.

In November, Diaz-Campos traveled to Oaxaca to help rural communities come up with solutions for documenting Cuicateco grammar and sound systems. Along with a team from UNAM, he met with community leaders and teachers to talk about incorporating Cuicateco instruction into schools, changing road signs to list both Spanish and Cuicateco, and creating community events that promote preservation of the language. Marcela San Giacomo, one of the UNAM faculty members and a lead team member helping with the project, is supporting a local teacher in creating a webpage that will document the language’s lexical items.

Because language is so ingrained into our daily lives, Diaz-Campos said it can be easy to forget how essential it is to a person’s identity and the human experience in general. The traditions and history languages carry with them can tell the story of cultures.

“When people lose their language, they lose their identity,” Diaz-Campos said. “Particular words or sentence structures may not mean anything to us because we use them every day, but they have a history that can be traced. We don’t think about preservation or how important a minority language can be for particular communities.”

UNAM faculty interview Cuicateco speakers in Mexico
Manuel Diaz-Campos interviews Cuicateco speakers

Researchers also conducted an experiment to determine how many varieties of Cuicateco are spoken in the isolated areas of the region. Diaz-Campos explained that language is a symbolic way of signaling characteristics like one’s age, wealth, social status or membership to certain groups and communities. Using this concept, researchers asked a sample of Cuicateco speakers to identify regions with which they associate certain lexical items. Diaz-Campos said preliminary data from this experiment suggests that there are four varieties of Cuicateco, which correspond with the pattern of isolation in the rural communities of the region.

This project was not Diaz-Campos’ first shot at tracking relationships between varieties of a language. In fact, his use of a program to create a tree that maps the connections between six varieties of Spanish is what led faculty from UNAM to recruit him for the Cuicateco project. He said IU’s connections to UNAM were essential for this project, because he was able to leverage UNAM’s long-standing relationship with the rural communities. He said he was excited to work with UNAM’s experienced team of linguists and anthropologist, which includes Yolanda Lastra, Marcela San Giacomo and Pedro Martin Butragueño.

“Without the UNAM team, it would have been impossible to enter this community and to understand what the appropriate cultural codes are,” Diaz-Campos said. “The work of the graduate student team is also essential, and these experiences will contribute to their professional preparation to be successful researchers.”

Being able to spend several weeks on the ground in the community was also vital to the success of the project, according to Diaz-Campos.

“Human contact is essential for creating a partnership,” he said. “Even though the UNAM team knew my research from my visits to Mexico City, this particular project wouldn’t have had the same results if I hadn’t been able to embed myself on the ground and really work with the community in Oaxaca.”

The hands-on work and face-to-face interactions with participants during the project differ from the usual nature of Diaz-Campos’ research.

“My research tends to look at data and numbers and is very quantitative, but this opportunity let me see the results of my work right before my eyes,” he said. “If I had to point to an example of sociolinguistics, this project is it.”

Diaz-Campos plans to return to the region in August to do more work with the community and give workshops on his language variation mapping program. He said that being able to branch out beyond Indiana and the United States for this project and research in general creates the possibility for completely changing the understanding of the field.

“If we keep doors closed, we have no impact.”

Read part 1 of the series Read part 2 of the series

 Read part 4 of the series Read part 5 of the series


IU Newsroom

Marah Yankey

Deputy director for storytelling

More stories

News at IU