ATTENTIVE, shoeless pupils sit upright at rough wooden benches. This bare classroom may look like many others in rural Costa Rica, but here the lessons are in Malecu as well as in Spanish. Teacher Olin Marin bursts with pride as one of his non-Indian students gets the pronunciation right: quer'erequer'ere. (The undulating syllables - kay-RAY-ray-kay-RAY-ray - mean chief in Malecu.) ``Some of our words are longer than sentences,'' he laughs. ``It's even tough for me!'' Tonjibe School, where Mr. Marin teaches, is in the Guatuso Indian Reservation in northern Costa Rica. Most of the 300 villagers, the last survivors of their race, still speak some Malecu. But their language, like their land, is being threatened by encroaching squatters, timbermen, and other non-Indians. It's a pattern repeated in all of Costa Rica's Indian reserves.
There are 20,000 Indians out of a total population of 2.5 million Costa Ricans. Of nearly a dozen distinct ethnic groupings, the languages of only six survive: The rest are lost forever.
Marin is one of the hundreds of aboriginal teachers in Costa Rica's 86 reservation schools battling such cultural loss. This is the first year he's introduced a bilingual curriculum, and his pupils love it.
``We've had 500 years of paternalism,'' says Guillermo Garc'ia, the Ministry of Education's national coordinator for Indian education. ``Our most important work is to change the mentality of the Indian teachers. They were educated at a time when the primacy of Spanish and assimilation were unquestioned. We're teaching them to be flexible and more creative.''
Mr. Garc'ia is himself a product of such training. A non-Indian, he taught in Indian schools for eight years before beginning his work at the ministry in 1985. Garc'ia remembers being disturbed by the negative self-image and poor attendance of so many of his Indian students. ``Everything in the curriculum from language to history seemed to tell them that they were lesser. Language is the key to restoring pride,'' he says, adding, ``it's the first step toward economic independence.''
Indeed, there is much more than a cultural agenda at stake. In Costa Rican law, an Indian's tribal land rights exist because of his ``Indian-ness.'' One of the legal ways to distinguish an Indian community from one of ladino, or mixed race, is the ability to speak an indigenous language. Without their language, a tribe risks loss of identity and ancestral lands.
Three years ago, the Ministry of Education began preparing bilingual materials with the aid of reservation teachers and linguists at the University of Costa Rica. When this academic year began in March, it had published alphabet books in Malecu, Cabecar, T'erraba, and Boruca. Additional books in Guaym'i and Bribri are under way, along with pamphlets relating the history and legends of each village.
Book and pamphlet preparation are a community project, with tribal elders, parents, and teachers participating. For most it is the first attempt to systematize in writing what had been a completely oral tradition. As one Guaym'i father puts it, ``This is what we've been waiting for all these years. Finally the teachers are with us.''
Watching Marin's ethnically mixed class, Garc'ia is encouraged: ``These children are going to have a completely different mentality about what an Indian is. And that can only be good for us all.''