Mayan tongues: key to learning for Guatemalan majority. Schools adopt a bilingual approach for early grades

Six-year-old Carlitos arrived on time for his first day of primary school in San Juan, Comalapa, a small town 50 miles northwest of Guatemala City. But despite his desire to learn and the full attention he gave his teacher, he couldn't understand a word that was said. The instructor spoke only Spanish and Carlitos spoke only Kaqchikel. The teaching method was repetition, not participation. Carlitos, who is now 22 and an economist, remembers, ``It was like being in a box without an escape.''

Fifty percent of his classmates had to repeat first grade. Many took two or three years to pass each grade until they reached sixth. Many more gave up. Although Guatemala is not the poorest nation in Latin America, it is the second most illiterate country (Haiti is first) and has the second-highest dropout rate. Less than 10 percent of those who enter first grade graduate from sixth.

``The school itself is the source of illiteracy, it is a center of failure, not a center of learning,'' says Mario Leyton, an education consultant sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. ``It is the scene of a confrontation of cultures.''

The Guatemalan educational system is going through a radical change with the support of the almost three-year-old democratic government of President Vinicio Cerezo. The curriculum from preschool to sixth grade is being transformed to respond to the needs of the long-neglected Mayan majority of the population.

The Mayan Indians, more than half of whom do not speak Spanish, are further distinguished from the mestizos (mixed Spanish descent) by their darker skin, their practice of Mayan religion as well as Roman Catholicism, and their brightly embroidered traditional clothing.

``Rather than promoting the current cultural confrontation and attempting to integrate Mayan children into a dominant Western culture, the new curriculum will integrate all children into a Guatemalan nationality that is pluri-cultural and respects diversity,'' says Mr. Leyton.

Because there are 23 languages and cultures within Guatemala, and further diversity throughout the various regions, teachers in each school will have the freedom to design a curriculum that responds to the needs of the particular community.

For example, students in one region may learn mathematics in terms of coffee growing, the occupation most prevalent in the children's families.

The ambitious project began with $200,000 in seed money from UNDP, the financial motivator for further donations: $1.6 million from the Netherlands, $600,000 from the World Bank, and $180,000 from the United States Agency for International Development, in addition to the Guatemalan government's contribution of $1 million.

When the project is completed, teachers from all over the country will have participated in the formation of basic but flexible curriculum guides for each grade; teachers will know the language of the students and gradually introduce Spanish as a second language while using the native language for instruction in the first grade; more participation and practical activities will replace rote learning; more visual aids will be used; and the entire process will reflect individual community needs, such as classes being held in non-harvest seasons when children are not required to work in the fields.

There are many reasons that parents do not keep their children in school. Some Mayans see learning Spanish as surrendering to the Spanish conquerors. Others lose patience after children repeat the same grade several times. The repetition of grades also means a first-grade classroom has students from ages 6 to 15.

By reducing repetition, the project will make room for more students without a need for building new classrooms. At present the average Guatemalan between the ages of 6 and 12 has 2.5 years of schooling; the project hopes to raise that to 4 years. ``Success will guarantee economic, social, and cultural development of all sectors and will thus strengthen the democratic process,''says Leyton.

The revamping of the curriculum itself is being done by democratic means. Thirty teachers, about half of whom are of Indian descent, have been elected by their colleagues to design the curriculum guides, with assistance from national and international UN-sponsored consultants. Once the guide for one grade is finished, those 30 give courses on the new curriculum to 375 teachers throughout the country. Those 375, called multipliers, then give courses to teachers in their area. Some 14,000 teachers of first-graders have already received instruction.

``This small amount of money spent on changing the educational system will do more for democracy and peace in the region than all the money spent on arms in Latin America,'' says one of the project officials.

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