[lg policy] “We Work as Bilinguals”: Socioeconomic Changes and Language Policy for Indigenous Languages in El Impenetrable

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 15 10:30:41 EDT 2018

 “We Work as Bilinguals”: Socioeconomic Changes and Language Policy for
Indigenous Languages in El Impenetrable
Virginia Unamuno and Juan Eduardo Bonnin
The Oxford Handbook of Language Policy and Planning
Edited by James W. Tollefson and Miguel Pérez-Milans
Print Publication Date: Jul 2018 Subject: Linguistics, Sociolinguistics Online
Publication Date: May 2018 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190458898.013.29

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In This Article

   - Language Policies, Ethnography, and Discourse Analysis
   - The Bilinguals in Chaco: Between National Legislation and Local
   - Bilinguals as State Agents: The Ideology of Access
   - Bilinguals as Local Actors: Education and Health Care in El
      - The Wichi Health-Care Workers
      - The Wichi Educators
   - Conclusions
   - References
   - Notes

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Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the social impact of language policy and planning
(LPP) in the daily life of Wichi communities in Argentina. The analysis
shows how languages and bilingualism, categorized as a specific resource to
access public positions in deprived regions in Argentina, define a disputed
territory and shape social conflicts among groups. The chapter focuses on
the Argentinean region known as El Impenetrable, where new language
policies are transforming health and educational institutions traditionally
managed by non-indigenous people. The presence of new actors in public
institutions, assessed with relation to language competences, and the
setting of a new political agenda can be explained from local and global
processes where public decisions are rooted. Ethnographic sociolinguistics
and discourse analysis are combined in a methodological approach to LPP
that takes into account the interplay of different voices in relation to
local and social transformations regarding indigenous language uses and

Keywords: bilingualism
<http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=bilingualism>, discourse
analysis <http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=discourse
analysis>, indigenous language
<http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=indigenous language>,
language planning
planning>, language
policy <http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=language
policy>, sociolinguistics
<http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=ethnography>, Wichi
<http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/search?f_0=keyword&q_0=Wichi>, Argentina

To be bilingual is not the same as being *a* bilingual. The former treats
*bilingual* as an adjective: a descriptive term depicting some property of
an entity. In contrast, the latter defines a category of beings: *a
bilingual* is someone who is defined by his or her bilingualism. The
definition of a speaker by her or his (multi)linguistic competences is not
new; there is a globally valued order of languages that defines different
“orders of indexicality” (Blommaert, 2010
p. 37), stratified axiological systems within which communicative
competences are evaluated. Dominant languages in Western societies—English
and Spanish in Latin-America—are a valuable linguistic capital that can be
used by global speakers to achieve global goals, such as studying abroad or
publishing academic papers. These speakers are bilingual, but they are not *the

We observe this folk grammatical re-categorization that uses an adjective
as a noun, in a rather specific phenomenon: the emergence of a new
state-based job category that, unusually, requires Spanish–indigenous
language bilingualism. Indeed, in (p. 380) Chaco Province, Argentina, after
several decades of invisibilization and social repression of indigenous
languages, Moqoit-Spanish, Qom-Spanish, and Wichi-Spanish bilingualism are
now required to access qualified jobs in the public educational and
health-care system. Although it might be regarded as a successful outcome
of many years of indigenous peoples’ struggle, there is a more complex
political process that situates bilinguals as an in-between class of social
actors, whose Spanish–indigenous language bilingualism qualifies them for
state positions in a particular way.

>From this perspective, bilinguals in Chaco respond to a twofold problem
that is characteristic of the formulation of national public policies
within the context of regional integration processes. On one hand, the
state interacts with international and multilateral organizations, thus
“relinquishing some sovereignty and economic autonomy, in order to join a
supranational regional group for prosperity and security purposes” (Wright,
p. 182). On the other hand, the state also interacts with local
actors—landowners and natives—to reduce social conflict: within a process
of progressive reappropriation of the land as a means of subsistence for
native populations, their social and economic demands are partially
appeased with new government-provided jobs (Unamuno, 2014
The bilingual can be seen as a figure who works simultaneously at both
levels. At the supranational level, this seems to respond to diplomatic
commitments acquired in organizations such as the *Unión de las Naciones
del Sur* (UNASUR) or the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) by somehow
integrating so-called native people into educational and health
institutions. At the local level, it helps to free roadblocks and decrease
belligerence by indigenous organizations toward landowners in exchange for
well-paid government-provided jobs (Unamuno, 2014

As subjects *in-between*, the social and political meaning of the
bilinguals is not homogeneous. On the contrary, different linguistic
ideologies frame diverse conditions of understanding and encouraging the
role of these new, emergent social actors. To the modern nation-state, the
bilingual is a key actor in the *access* of minority populations to
universally defined human rights. The ideology of access attributes to
bilinguals the role of *translators* on the basis of two principles: (1)
every minority should subordinate its particular identity to state-defined,
Western universalistic policies (therefore adapting to dominant languages);
and (2) language is a transparent code that objectively conveys information
that can be completely translated from one code to another. To the
communities, on the contrary, both principles are contested on the basis of
an ideology of *identity*, which refuses to abandon their own worldview,
based on a heteroglossic conception of language—not only bilingualism.

In what follows, we will present how we understand the role of the
bilinguals in this contradictory position. First, we will explain the
theoretical and methodological assumptions of our research. We understand
language policies as a multidimensional political set of actions that, just
like the bilinguals, exists between institutions and practices. Our
approach to language policy and planning (LPP) therefore draws on
ethnography, discourse analysis, and studies of interaction, combined in a (p.
381) comprehensive approach to data. Second, we will present a case study
of indigenous teachers and health workers at El Impenetrable, Chaco, in the
Argentinean context. This context will be observed first through the
analysis of institutional discourses regarding language in health care and
education, in order to better describe the *ideology of access* from the
perspective of the Argentinean nation-state. Next, we will analyze
ethnographic data to observe how this institutional ideology interacts with
actual practices conducted at the local level by indigenous health workers
and educators. The *ideology of identity*, materialized in daily practices
and discourses, will (to a greater or lesser extent) silently confront the
state view of language among indigenous actors in health care and
education. The conflict between both ideologies is, up to a certain point,
characteristic of the struggle between modern, state-oriented language
policies and grassroots activism, including language as a part of a wider
repertoire of political action. Following on this, we will conclude with an
account of the further implications for LPP research.

Language Policies, Ethnography, and Discourse Analysis

Language planning and policies are usually related to practices, attitudes,
and ideologies regarding the politics of language, or *glottopolitics*. As
noted by Guespin and Marcellesi (1986, p. 14)
“toute planification linguistique, dans une société de classes, est
nécessairement la politique linguistique d’une classe sociale dominante”
[language planning, at any given society of classes, is necessarily the
linguistic policy of a dominant social class]. From this perspective,
language policies are necessarily actions that (a) are meaningful and, as a
result, can (and probably should) be discursively analyzed; and (b) are
aimed at speakers rather than languages, affecting their social and
economic realities. We therefore adopt a twofold perspective on language
policies, which includes both discourse analysis of institutional texts and
ethnographic analysis of language practices.

Language policies in Argentina have traditionally been studied through
historical and discourse analysis of public texts, such as legal norms and
political speeches (cf. Arnoux & Bein, 2010
Arnoux & Nothstein, 2014
Very little research seeks to explain language policies by taking into
consideration political actions at different social levels or scales.
However, the public field is a space of dispute in which historically
confronted groups struggle to access, control, and transform goods and
institutions. Land, education, health, and justice are political objects
that different actors from different positions (and with different
interests) seek to appropriate. In the context of these processes,
languages play a key role. It is therefore hard to (p. 382) explain
language policies without considering what is at stake in their symbolic
and material dimensions.

Rather than considering language policies as the result of deliberate
actions by state actors, undertaken to influence the use and/or
transmission of language, we are interested in looking at the processes in
which language is effectively intertwined with everyday political action
(Tollefson, 1991
Our research seeks to understand complex multilateral processes in which
language is a politically disputed capital, closely related to others such
as educational degrees or professional qualifications. Instead of assuming
that public agencies make decisions that other actors enforce, we are
interested in the ways in which multiple decisions converge or diverge in
the symbolic struggle to build and/or influence the public sphere regarding
language-related issues.

These processes are complex research objects because, although
contemporary, they require historical comprehension, and because, despite
their strong interactional basis, their description requires simultaneous
attention to different levels and degrees of context (Unamuno, 2015
Ethnographic sociolinguistics offers a series of meaningful tools for this
kind of research (Heller, 2001
Hornberger, 1995
Codo, Patiño & Unamuno, 2012
especially regarding methods of multiple contextualizations in the process
of reconstructing the meaning of the analyzed phenomena (Johnson & Ricento,

Ethnographic fieldwork and knowledge of a community help explain the actual
effects of normative legal discourses. In Argentina, many public policies
on languages, including their legal status (such as that of “official
language”), do not lead to any political action over their use or
transmission. Instead, they usually lead to innocuous symbolic recognition
that does not necessarily have any transformative effect on the hegemony of

The combination of discourse analysis and ethnography enables understanding
of widespread institutional ideologies, as well as the actual agency of the
mostly indigenous social actors who, through grassroots political activism
and discourse struggle, can force emergent regulations or normative
applications. We shall now turn to our research setting.

The Bilinguals in Chaco: Between National Legislation and Local Roadblocks

Chaco is a province in northeastern Argentina, inhabited by three
indigenous nations—Qom, Moqoit, and Wichi—as well as descendants of eastern
European immigrants. It was a pioneer province in the legal recognition of
indigenous rights (p. 383) in general, and language rights in particular.
The Law of the Chaco Aboriginal (Ley de las comunidades indígenas; Provincia
de Chaco, 1987
is recognized, even today, as being very progressive on the subject of
native people’s rights. We gathered data for this chapter through our
fieldwork, which has been ongoing since 2009. Our research focuses on the
region of El Impenetrable, specifically on the communities that live by the
Teuco River. We have accompanied these communities in different projects,
especially regarding teacher training and the introduction of the Wichi
language and culture in public schools.

It is worth noting two events in the recent linguistic history of these
communities. One is the creation in 2007 of a branch of the Center for
Research and Training for Indigenous Modality (Centro de Investigación y
Formación para la Modalidad Aborigen), which provides teacher training and
awards an official degree equivalent to that of any non-indigenous teacher.
The other is the appointment in September 2009 of the first Wichi nurse in
an executive position at the local hospital. Both events are meaningful
milestones according to Wichi and non-Wichi local accounts, representing an
about-face in interethnic relationships. In this new process, Wichi people
have gradually gained access to previously unreachable state positions in
the fields of education and health care. Thus, from 2009 to 2016, there has
been an unusual increase in the number of Wichi teachers from only four to
sixty-two, of whom 85% hold teaching positions in the public system. In a
similar vein, from 2011 to 2016, 225 health-care workers joined the public
health-care system, 63 of whom were Wichi.

Another series of events have taken place since the beginning of our
research regarding language policy at different levels and dimensions. At
the provincial level, in 2010, the Chaco Parliament enacted the law that
makes Qom, Moqoit, and Wichi co-official languages. In 2013, after a long
period of pressure from indigenous movements led by bilingual teachers, a
Bill on Indigenous Intercultural Bilingual Community-Managed Public
Education (Ley de Educación Pública de Gestión Comunitaria Bilingüe
Intercultural Indígena) was proposed, and the law was enacted on August 13,
2014 (Provincia de Chaco, 2014
It enables indigenous communities to run schools, at which up to 50% of the
appointed staff can be indigenous.

In the field of health care, it should be noted that in December 2007 a
health emergency was declared in the Province of Chaco as a result of the
death by malnutrition of more than twenty-two indigenous persons. Faced
with this situation, various indigenous demonstrations took place in the
province, with activists cutting off roads and occupying hospitals and
health-care facilities. Chaco Aboriginal Institute, on behalf of indigenous
communities, requested the intervention of the Ombudsman’s Office, which
filed a criminal complaint at the Supreme Court of Justice, causing the
national and provincial governments to take immediate concrete action
regarding indigenous health care. In this context of political pressure,
the Aboriginal Health Council was created to advise the government of Chaco
on health issues in indigenous contexts, creating new positions for
bilingual nurses and new training programs for bilingual intercultural
health workers.

(p. 384) As noted earlier, the bilinguals are subjects in-between. On the
one hand, top-down, transnational indigenous movements project commitments,
languages, and symbols from countries with more visible native activism
(especially Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador) onto others with more invisibilized
native activism (like Argentina) through supranational organizations. On
the other hand, bottom-up, daily struggles and protests result not only in
community subsistence, but also in the revaluation of previously
undervalued capital, such as native cultures and languages. These two
different orders will be dealt with, in turn, in the following two sections.

Bilinguals as State Agents: The Ideology of Access

Health care and education are two basic human rights that are public, free,
and universal in Argentina. Although the former is not explicitly included
in the 1994 National Constitution, it is included in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
which Argentina ratified in 1986 (Giovanella et al., 2012
p. 26). In other words, health care appears as a human right through
international instruments and commitments that the country has ratified.
This helps explain the relevance of international organizations and their
agendas in the formulation of health policies in Argentina.

On the other hand, the Argentinean Constitution explicitly recognizes the
right to “intercultural bilingual education” (hereafter IBE; art. 75). The
amendment, introduced in 1994, resulted from pressure by international
multilateral agreements, specifically Argentina’s ratification of the
International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s
Convention of 1989 (ILO Convention 169), which explicitly includes IBE.
Similarly, Argentina signed political commitments with UNESCO and UNICEF
regarding the teaching of mother tongues and the protection of
language-cultural diversity. However, formal recognition of IBE did not
necessarily lead to actions regulating bilingual and intercultural teaching.

Although there is a long tradition of IBE and explicit reflection on
language and education in Argentina (López & Küper, 1999
López & Sichra, 2008
no comparable importance is attributed to language in the field of
health-care theory and practice. Something similar occurs with multilateral
organizations such as the United Nations and the ILO, which tend to include
indigenous languages explicitly when referring to education, but not when
referring to health care. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (2007)
recognizes the right of indigenous people to “*their traditional medicines*
and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their
vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals” (art. 24; our (p. 385) emphasis).
Knowledge of health and the body seems to be related to material objects
and practices, and not to language, which is explicitly included when
discussing education: “[i]ndigenous peoples have the right to establish and
control *their educational systems and institutions* providing
education in *their
own languages*, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of
teaching and learning” (art. 14; our emphasis).

The promotion of indigenous knowledge and practices in health care and
education, despite differences regarding language, is complemented by
universalistic discourse on *access* to state policies: “Indigenous
individuals, particularly children, have the right to *all levels and forms
of education* of the State without discrimination.” (art. 14; our
emphasis); “Indigenous individuals also have the right to *access*, without
discrimination, *all social and health services*” (art. 24; our emphasis).
The tension between indigenous medicine and education (“their”) and
universally defined policies proposed by the UN text (“all”) poses a
challenge to national states. The strategies used to face this challenge
may often be understood as what we call the *ideology of access.*

The ideology of access, even when recognizing particular cultures and their
values, has two principles, both based in the ideology of the modern
nation-state, which links territory, identity, citizenship, and
language (Blommaert,
Its first feature is a *subordination of particular identities to
state-defined, Western universalistic policies*. Under this principle,
minorities are seen as excluded from policies because of their
particularities; the state’s duty is, therefore, to help them access
universal rights, a corpus of Western knowledge and institutions that is
fixed and static. Language may thus appear as a barrier to access: “[t]he
main barrier [to health-care services] is the lack of geographic, cultural
and economic accessibility [ . . . ]. Indigenous people receive substandard
care at healthcare centers, due either to discrimination in the system or
to communication difficulties because they speak different languages”
de Salud de la Nación, 2012
p. 10; our translation).1
Indigenous languages are not perceived as useful tools for health-care
workers to access indigenous people, but rather as an obstacle faced by
indigenous people, preventing them from accessing proper health care.

The main legal framework on IBE proposes language diversity as a basis for
dialogue, rather than as an obstacle: “IBE promotes a mutually enriching
dialogue of knowledge and values between indigenous peoples and populations
that are ethnically, linguistically and culturally different, and
encourages recognition and respect towards those differences” (Education
Act 26.206, art. 52; our translation).2
However, the normative ruling of the act replicates the conception of
indigenous bi/monolingualism as a handicap. Thus, in the National Plan of
Mandatory Education for years 2012–2016, language diversity is perceived as
a feature of a population that has “special needs,” almost as a disability:
“as of 2016, all jurisdictions implement institutional formats for children
with specific educational needs (rurality, deprivation of liberty of their
mothers, interculturality and bilingualism, parents or students with
disabilities, in hospital or in domiciliary care)” (Consejo Ferderal de
Educación, 2012, p. 5; our translation).3
As in the case of health care, bilingualism is perceived (p. 386) not as a
competence of indigenous children that can be improved by the educational
system but, on the contrary, as an obstacle that should be overcome in
order for them to access Western, state-defined education.

The second feature of the ideology of access is a *monoglossic view on
language as a transparent code* that allows information to be conveyed from
one person to another. From this perspective, the issue of indigenous
languages is regarded as a problem of indigenous bi/monolingual speakers
who cannot access education or health offered by the Western,
Spanish-monolingual state. This linguistic ideology sustains a reductive
and conservative conception of interculturality: “communication between
cultures or intercultural communication is basically understood as an
exchange of information through language” (Ministerio de Salud, 2012
p. 50; our translation).4
The definition of “intercultural communication” is based on a simplistic
monoglossic view of language and culture whereby “exchange of information
through language” assumes that *culture* equals *information* and that
*communication* is, thus, an exchange of information that has language as a
neutral medium, a code that can be perfectly translated into another. In
the field of education, bilingualism and interculturality are not seen as
the property of a specific educational policy or content, but rather as a
contextual feature. IBE is thus intended to “extend and improve conditions
and forms of access” at “kindergartens in intercultural and bilingual
contexts,” for “students in contexts of interculturality and
bilingualism” (Consejo
Federal de Educación, 2012
p. 17; our translation).5

To sum up, the ideology of access is a modern ideology that seeks
universalistic inclusion of all citizens, helping them overcome their
barriers or handicaps, such as language diversity, as a form of defending
the equality of people born in different contextual conditions. This
ideology is based on a monoglossic conception of language as a neutral code
and thus leads to a strategy that aims to facilitate access to that code.
Hence, the bilingual, from this point of view, is an interpreter capable of
translating Western knowledge on education and health to the disadvantaged
bi/monolingual indigenous population.

Nevertheless, at the local level of everyday language policymaking, the
bilinguals’ practices seem to be framed in the *ideology of identity*, in
which ideas about language do not separate language and culture; at the
same time, this ideology is based in a deeply heteroglossic view of
language and communication. This is the hypothesis that we will explore

Bilinguals as Local Actors: Education and Health Care in El Impenetrable

Many Wichi bilinguals have been hired for local state positions, despite
social and ideological conflicts with the local white6
population. Under these conditions, the (p. 387) revalorization of their
linguistic capital played a key role in response to inclusive national laws
regarding health and education. Indigenous bilingualism thus appears as a
resource intended to ensure the access of the monolingual Wichi native
population to general or common knowledge about the world. The ideology of
access thus led to new institutional roles and dynamics that noticeably
sought to appoint indigenous people to work as translators/interpreters. In
what follows, we will observe, both at health-care and educational
institutions, the tension between white authorities, who represent the
state ideology of access, and indigenous bilinguals, who propose an
alternative view of diversity and language.
The Wichi Health-Care Workers

The fieldwork vignette in Box 19.1
describes this process at the local hospital.

Box 19.1 “At the Hospital”: Field Notes, September 2013

Dr. Nunez [pediatrician at the Hospital] explains that she has worked with
bilingual health workers for a long time. “At the hospital there are now
two people working with us. They translate when patients do not understand
us. Women and children come here and sometimes they do not understand what
they have to do. Flor and Marta explain to them in Wichi or ask them
questions.” I ask her for permission to observe consultations. She does not
seem to like the idea very much, but agrees to it when Flor recognizes and
greets me. Dr. Nuñez is sitting behind a desk next to Flor. On the left are
a table and chair facing the desk. I stand there. A young Wichi woman in
her twenties enters with a child in her arms. She hands the doctor a paper
without saying a word. The doctor reads the paper and writes an order for
powdered milk. Before returning the paper, she says she will weigh the
child. Flor stands up and explains in Wichi what to do, asking the mother
to put the baby on the scales. Flor announces the weight in Spanish to the
doctor, who writes it down. She then hands the young mother the
prescription for the milk and tells her to go to the hospital pharmacy. The
woman leaves the room.

In the field notes, we can trace back to 2013 an initial intuition
regarding the role of bilinguals as conceived by the state ideology of
access—and its institutional agent, Dr. Nuñez. The role attributed to
indigenous health workers—in this case, Flor—is that of interpreter or
language assistant, subordinated to the white physician. Although Flor is
not a physician, she has received formal training as a health-care worker.
She belongs to the SASOI, the Service for Indigenous People’s Orientation
and Health Care (Servicio de Atención para la Salud y Orientación
Indígena), a recently created office at public hospitals in Chaco that is
entirely composed of bilinguals. We can observe in this vignette the two
basic principles of the ideology of access. First, language appears as a
handicap of indigenous people that prevents them from accessing Western
health care. The physician therefore requires a translator in order to be
understood by patients, not to understand them. Second, language appears as
a transparent code that conveys information from one person to (p.
388) another.
Flor herself—or her medical knowledge—does not appear to be relevant; the
patient’s mother remains silent throughout the whole process during which
Dr. Nuñez gathers medical information without much actual interaction.

How do these bilinguals see their work? Do they share the ideology of
access of Dr. Nuñez and official discourse? Box 19.2
provides some insights on these questions, as part of an interview granted
by the local SASOI officer.

Box 19.2 Interview with Antonio, Local SASOI Officer (Participants: A:
Antonio; R: Researcher)

A Eso es una lucha constante de nosotros, porque vos verás que el que viene
de arriba, le interesa mucho nuestro idioma porque quieren saber cómo eran
nosotros, ¿no? Porque a través del idioma se entiende mucho lo que el . . .
en la comunidad, lo que es el wichi, el aborigen, el originario como dicen
(. . .) muchos de nuestros ancianos, de nuestros antepasados, no pudieron
tener acceso a buena salud, a entender, a explicarle al doctor, al que
viene de arriba lo que le pasaba. ¿Por qué? Por culpa de nuestro idioma,
por muchas cosas que decimos en nuestro idioma. Lo traducimos en castellano
y no es lo mismo, no. A veces yo digo, mirá, yo digo al doctor: “me duele .
. . me duele . . . la panza.” Claro que el doctor le va a dar cosas de la
panza, y no era la panza, sino acá (se señala la zona de la panza). Y
explicándole bien al doctor, bueno, puede ser estómago, porque nosotros
decimos “la panza,” toda la panza.

R Ajá.

A Y no era la panza, puede ser el hígado, la vesícula, o el estómago.

R Ajá.

A That is a constant struggle of ours, because you see that the people at
the top are very interested in our language because they want to know what
we were like, right? Because through the language you understand a lot that
the . . . in the community, what is the Wichi, the aboriginal, the
originary as they say [. . .] many of our old folks, of our ancestors,
couldn’t have access to good health, to understand, to explain to the
doctor, to the one at the top what was wrong with them. Why? Because of our
language, because of many things we say in our language. We translate into
Spanish and it’s not the same, no. Sometimes I say, look, I say to the
doctor: “there’s pain . . . there’s pain . . . in my belly.” Of course the
doctor will give me things for the belly, and it wasn’t the belly, but here
(indicating the region of the belly). And, by explaining well, the doctor,
well, it may be the stomach, because we say “the belly,” the whole belly.

R Mhm.

A And it wasn’t the belly, it could be the liver, the gall bladder, or the

R Mhm.

In the interview excerpt, the health-care worker adopts an opposition
between “us” (indigenous) and “them” (white people), introducing the issue
of language as identity, rather than just a code: when explaining the
interest of white people (mainly academics) in the Wichi language, he
states that “through language you understand (p. 389) what the community,
the Wichi, the aboriginal, the native people are.” If language is not just
a code that can be translated into another, but the very substance of “the
community, the Wichi,” it embodies a worldview that cannot be transposed
from Wichi to Spanish: “we translate it into Spanish and it is not the
same.” This folk version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is quite the
opposite of the one adopted by the Ministry of Health, which defined
“intercultural communication” as simply “exchanging information through

To Wichi health workers, language is not a monoglossic, transparent code
homogeneously distributed among a given population. On the contrary, we can
observe in their speech a reflection on both bilingual and monolingual
medical practices, characterized as situations of intercultural

In Box 19.3
this *cuento* (a story that might or might not have really happened)
presents two characters: an inexperienced young physician, “newly
graduated, from the city [ . . . ] with all his knowledge,” and a *criollo*
couple and their little child, who live in “a little village” (*un pueblito*).
The opposition here is not between *criollos* or white people and Wichis
(on this difference, see Unamuno, 2014
but between *criollos* from a small town and an inexperienced but competent
white city physician. Both participants are defined by their wording of the
pain suffered by the little boy who could not yet speak. In terms of Agha
p. 39), Antonio’s story introduces two distinct *social voices*, which can
be defined as discursive figures that permit characterization in a
metadiscourse of social types or personal attributes through characteristic
lects or styles. In this case, the *criollos* are indexed by the “voice of
the lifeworld” (Mishler, 1984
“problems in the stomach,” “malaria,” and “belly pain.” The physician, on
the other hand, rejects the parents’ lay diagnosis (“he says no”) and
offers, instead, the “voice of medicine” (Mishler, 1984
see Bonnin, 2014
p. 159 ff.): “it’s a gastroenteritis, it’s nothing, it’s gastroenteritis.”
The *criolla* woman does not understand (“what can it possibly be, she asks
herself”) or ask the physician for clarification. This is a typical sign of
physician-patient asymmetry (due to their structurally different social
roles), but does not necessarily refer to social distance between them (on
this difference, see Bonnin, 2014
pp. 151–152). As the *criolla* woman cannot understand the technical term
used by the physician, she arrives at a comic interpretation, mistaking
“gastroenteritis” for “*gato enterito*” (whole cat).

This humoristic story provides a heteroglossic view of language that is not
present at all in national or international institutional discourses:
language barriers to health-care access are not just an inter-linguistic
problem. Rather, in this example they are an inter-lect one, as the
*criollo* couple cannot understand medical discourse. Thus, speakers of the
same language may not understand each other because they embody different
voices: the physician does not acknowledge the *criolla*’s account of her
child’s pain, and the *criolla* mishears the technical term used by the
physician. This folk sociolinguistic hypothesis is opposed to the
hypothesis of PAHO–Ministry of Health, which noted “difficulties in
communication due to speaking different languages,” addressing language
contact as an obstacle to access. (p. 390)

Box 19.3 Interview with Antonio, Local SASOI Officer (Participants: A:
Antonio; R1: Researcher 1; R2: Researcher 2)

A Aunque no lo creas, pero hay criollos también que, ¿no? criollos que no .
. . tampoco no entienden su castilla. No sé si el castilla del blanco es .
. .

R1 Es distinto. Mhm.

A Tiene su interpretación, es distinto, no?

R1 Sí, es otra . . . otro dialecto digamos; aquí la gente criolla habla un
dialecto del castellano muy cerrado y a veces muy diferente. [ . . . ]

A Sí, tengo un cuento de eso [ . . . ] resulta que había en un pueblito,
era un doctor recién recibido, de la ciudad. Eh, está con todas las pilas,
con todo su (choca las manos) su saber, (ríe) entonces viene al campo y
viene una parejita de criollos, le llevaron a su hijito con problemas de
estómago, de malaria, dicen ellos, de barriga, dolor de barriga. Entonces
el doctor lo revisa bien, dice: “no, tu hijo tiene gastroenteritis, no es
nada; gastroenteritis tiene.” La criolla lo mira, “qué será,
gastroenteritis,” no sabe si entendió o escuchó mal. Entonces va al chico,
lleva el chico y le preguntan “¿qué pasó?” “No,” dice, “dice el doctor que
no tiene nada el chico, dice que un gato enterito tiene en la panza.”

A Even though you may not believe it, there are criollos too who don’t . .
. criollos who either don’t understand their Castilian [Spanish]. I don’t
know if the Castilian of whites is . . .

R1 It’s different. Mhm.

A It has its interpretation, it’s different, right?

R1 Yes, it’s another . . . another dialect, let’s say; here criollo people
speak a Castilian dialect that is very closed and sometimes very different.
[ . . . ]

A Yes, I have a story about that [ . . . ] there was in a small village, it
was a newly graduated doctor, from the city. Uh, he is full of energy, full
of his (claps his hands) his knowledge, (laughs) then he comes to the
countryside and a young criollo couple come, they brought their little son
with problems in the stomach, with malaria, they say, with pain in the
belly. Then the doctor checks him thoroughly, says: “no, your son has
gastroenteritis, it’s nothing; he has gastroenteritis.” The criolla woman
looks at him, “What can gastroenteritis possibly be?” She doesn’t know if
she understood or heard wrong. Then she goes to the child, takes the child,
and somebody asks “What happened?” “No,” she says, “the doctor says the
child has nothing, he says that he has a whole cat [gato enterito in
Spanish] in his belly.”

This theoretical view of language also extends to speakers: if medical
interaction requires inter-lect communication, if languages are not neutral
codes and therefore cannot be perfectly translated into one another, then
indigenous health workers are not simply interpreters who translate Wichi
and Spanish in a single direction. Rather, they have a specific knowledge
of health and the body that is relevant to the process of health-care
communication. (p. 391)
The Wichi Educators

As in the field of health care, Wichi educators’ ideas about language and
knowledge differ from institutional ideas. The latter are embodied in the
presence of bilingual assistants in classrooms who are intended to act as
translators of non-indigenous teachers during their classes. These native
teaching assistants, or NTAs (Auxiliares Docentes Aborígenes), have been
appointed in Chaco Province since the 1990s and are the most common
educational initiative in indigenous contexts.

In Box 19.4
the interview with a local school principal shows the institutional role
attributed by white authorities to NTAs in the classroom.

Box 19.4 Interview with the Principal of 2256 School, September 2014
(Participants: SP: School Principal; R2: Researcher 2)

R2 ¿En qué grado están los auxiliares de los maestros?

SP Están en primero y segundo.

R2 Los ADAs están en primero y segundo y los maestros también.

SP También, pero están por una necesidad . . . que más se necesita de un
maestro bilingüe o de un ADA es en primer grado o segundo grado porque son
los chicos que recién ingresan a la escuela primera; ya tercero o cuarto ya
hablan bien, para mí hablan bien

R2 In what grades do teaching assistants work?

SP They’re in first and second.

R2 The NTAs are in first and second and the teachers are as well.

SP As well, but they’re there in response to a need . . . that a bilingual
teacher or an NTA are most needed in first or second grade because they are
the children who are just starting school; by third or fourth they can
speak well, in my opinion they speak well.

In this interview we observe, again, an institutional white authority who
embodies the principles of the ideology of access. In first place, she
describes the work of NTAs as “facilitators” who help monolingual Wichi
children through their first years of schooling, until they are able to
“speak [Spanish] well.” As in the case of health-care workers, their role
is not to adapt the school to indigenous students but, on the contrary, to
allow indigenous people to overcome what appears to be their linguistic
disability. Second, as in the case of indigenous health workers, NTAs have
formal training as educators; their role should not be, therefore, to
“assist” Wichi-speaking students but, rather, to teach classes to all
students, both Wichi and white. Although they are supposed to work
symmetrically in pairs with white teachers, forming a *pareja pedagógica*
(pedagogical pair), they are often relegated to a secondary role as
translators. We can observe this in Box 19.5

In this example, Etelvina, an NTA, works together with Nora, the non-Wichi
teacher. The roles, however, are not symmetrically distributed. Far from
it: Nora (p. 392) leads the class and proposes a painting task, and during
the class, Etelvina provides linguistic assistance to Nora, monitoring the
attention of Wichi children and offering supplementary explanations to
ensure understanding and participation in the Spanish-driven activity.
Again, the role of the NTA is not to bring white teachers closer to their
students’ language and culture but, instead, to enable indigenous pupils to
participate in the class.

Box 19.5 Etelvina and Nora’s Classroom, Kindergarten (Participants: E:
Etelvina, NTA; N: Nora, Classroom Teacher; CH: Children, Pupils)

N ¿Cómo se llamaba esto?


CH Tiza, tiza

N ¿Y de color era esta tiza?


CH Rosada.

N Rosada. Hoy vamos a trabajar ¿con?

CH Tiza.

E Con tiza; NAHONA TIZA.

N Con una tiza mojada.

E (a una niña que mira para otro lado) ¿Lucía?

N En agua.


N What was this called?


CH Chalk, chalk.

N And what color was this chalk?


CH Pink.

N Pink. Today we’re going to work with?

CH Chalk

E With chalk; NAHONA TIZA.

N With a wet chalk.

E (to a girl who is looking the other way) Lucía?

N In water.


Over the past decade, however, the structure of the *pareja pedagógica* has
been progressively displaced by another type of teaching organization,
placing intercultural bilingual teachers solely in charge of the class.
This new classroom organization is resisted by white institutions and their
authorities. This resistance is visible at different levels. At schools, we
have just seen that indigenous teachers are forced to accept an auxiliary
role as interpreters or linguistic assistants of white teachers. In other
spheres of public discussion, teaching unions do not recognize the
professional competences of these new teachers in public education because
indigenous teachers become competitors for jobs previously reserved to
white workers (Unamuno, 2014
Nevertheless, the right to have their own classes is one of the strongest
political vindications of indigenous movements in Chaco. (p. 393)

As we have documented in recent years, bilinguals have gradually gained
positions in schools and have built up an effective pressure group at the
provincial level to establish themselves as partners in the design and
implementation of educational policies. Their view on the traditional roles
attributed to Wichi teachers at schools is rather critical. As in the case
of health care, they do not see themselves as linguistic assistants or
interpreters. On the contrary, bilingual intercultural teachers demand a
different relationship between education and languages regarding at least
three aspects: (1) inclusion of the whole class (both Wichi and non-Wichi
children) in the activities conducted in the Wichi language, in the
understanding that bilingual education is an educational policy and not
simply an aid to indigenous people; (2) inclusion of Wichi cultural
contents that are not in the mandatory curriculum; and (3) teaching of
Spanish as second language to many children who are monolingual, or almost
monolingual, in indigenous languages.

The demands of Wichi teachers are new ways of bringing bilingualism into
the classroom, including new contents they teach together with the Western
curriculum. Outside the classrooms, these teachers have mobilized to oppose
the limited traditional role attributed to them at schools. The vignette in
Box 19.6
excerpted from fieldwork notes, illustrates this statement.

Box 19.6 “At a Teachers’ Meeting”: Field Notes, September 2014

Today we spent the whole morning at the Meeting of Wichi Teachers [ . . . ]
After the speeches by Etelvina and Lucrecia, an interesting discussion
arose: Lisandro supported an initiative of other teachers at his school who
refused to translate the principal’s speeches and patriotic songs. He also
said that they could make a translated list of anniversaries to be used by
all teachers. The rest agreed that they were also tired of translating. One
of them, Joaquin, suggested preparing a collective document specifying the
bilinguals’ teaching duties and stating that translating is not one of
them. “They should hire an interpreter” said Pablo, laughing.


In this chapter we have documented the emergence of bilinguals as an
outcome of a recent phenomenon in Argentina: the valorization of
Spanish-Wichi bilingualism as a professional qualification to apply for
state positions in the field of public health care and education. This
phenomenon responds simultaneously to different discourses. At the national
and regional level, legislation (re)produces an ideology of access that
seeks to guarantee the inclusion of native people in Western medicine (p.
394) and schooling. From this perspective, indigenous languages are a
cultural barrier that prevents natives from accessing proper (Western)
health care and education. The bilinguals are thus seen as interpreters
whose main role is to facilitate this unidirectional access from particular
deprived contexts to universal rights.

At the local level, however, bilinguals sustain a political discourse of
identity, which rejects the monoglossic view of language as a neutral code
and, instead, considers language and knowledge as two inseparable
dimensions of their own identities. By casting off the ideology of access,
indigenous health and education workers aim to transform the very same
institutions that originally appointed them.

By doing so, the bilinguals address some core ideological meanings of the
modern nation-state, as they reject both the identification of language and
citizenship and a monoglossic conception of language. This active rejection
is apparent in their explicit conceptions of language as an inseparable
part of identity and also in their medical and educational practices, in
which they dispute the subordinated role assigned to Wichi language and

Analysis shows the actual production of language policies at different
levels, which are contested and reinterpreted—practically and
theoretically—from the margins, by the same indigenous people who are
supposed to implement them passively. The use of ethnographically informed
discourse analysis seems to be useful to reveal tensions between two
ideologies: the institutional, which we call the ideology of access, and
the indigenous, which we call the ideology of identity.

The case analysis presented herein discusses the role of local actors in
the definition of language policies and their sense and performativity.
Bilinguals’ everyday actions and opinions, as they constitute the
meaningful dimension of systematic actions regarding languages, are a
veritable language policy that is designed, planned, and implemented by its
own beneficiaries.

The actual scope of these alternative policies is not apparent. On the one
hand, it could be argued that they will not have much effect on other
native communities, as they are not encoded or materialized in laws and
legal regulations. On the other hand, however, we observed that Wichis
actually defy and confront laws and legal dispositions, engaging in
grassroots activism by blocking roads or taking over state institutions,
such as the local hospital. Through these political practices, Wichi people
actually produce language policies on indigenous languages, sometimes
regulating de facto ambiguous laws, sometimes creating new legal and
juridical categories with (or without) special legal dispositions.

This process involves forceful action in the public space, and is not a
top-down effect of international commitments. Moreover, it is framed by
ideologies that provide symbolic support for policies, whether state- or
indigenous-made, embodied in daily practices and discourses. Thus, it is at
the crossroad of practices, discourses, and political action that language
policies are actually made by the bilinguals in *El Chaco*. It is through
daily interaction at hospitals and schools, and not through the (p. 395) legal
discourse of the state, that we can best understand how politically
powerful language policies might become.

In a wider sense, we think it is necessary to reconsider the central place
that research gives to the role of the state as a LPP agent. We underline
in this chapter the importance of including the study of the political
actions of other actors regarding languages, in order to construct a deeper
understanding of the complex relationships between agency and
transformation of the sociolinguistic field. The consideration of the
interplay between different actors and political actions allows us to
denaturalize the repertoire of policy actions of the state, and place them
in the frame of the ideological conditions in which they occur and of the
interests to which they respond. In this sense, the ideology of access,
described in public texts and in daily practices of state institutions, is
linked to the state’s role in the reproduction of the status quo. Its
actions toward the recognition of cultural rights unlinked to economic
rights are functional to this reproduction. Thus, grassroots
activism—including language, but not limited to it—needs to be careful of
its own success.


This work is part of the project PICT-2013-2283 funded by the National
Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion. We want to thank Camilo
Ballena and Lucía Romero for their collaboration with the transcripts.
Also, we would like to thank the editors of this *Handbook*, who have
helped us to improve this chapter in many ways. In particular, we would
like to thank Wichi health workers and teachers for their interest in and
support of our work. Thank you.

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“Accesibilidad a los servicios de salud [ . . . ] La principal barrera es
la falta de accesibilidad geográfica, *cultural* y económica [ . . . ]. Las
personas indígenas reciben deficiente atención en los centros de salud, ya
sea por discriminación en el sistema o por las *dificultades para
comunicarse por hablar lenguas distintas*” (Ministerio de Salud de la
Nación, *Situación de salud, intervenciones y líneas de investigación para
la toma de decisiones en salud con pueblos indígenas en Argentina*, p. 10).

“La Educación Intercultural Bilingüe promueve un diálogo mutuamente
enriquecedor de conocimientos yvalores entre los pueblos indígenas y
poblaciones étnica, lingüística y culturalmente diferentes, y propicia el
reconocimiento y el respeto hacia tales diferencias” (Ley 26.206, art. 52).

“Al 2016, todas las jurisdiccionales desarrollan formatos institucionales
de atención a niños y niñas con necesidades educativas específicas
(ruralidad, privación de la libertad de sus madres, interculturalidad y
bilingüismo, alumnos/as-padres discapacidad, en atención hospitalaria y
domiciliaria)” (*Plan Nacional de Educación Obligatoria y Formación Docente
2012–2016*; CFE No. 188/12).

“La comunicación entre culturas o comunicación intercultural, es entendida
básicamente como intercambio de información a través del lenguaje”
(Ministry of Health, *Interculturalidad y salud*, 50).

“Ampliar y mejorar las condiciones y formas de acceso,” “jardines en
contextos interculturales y bilingües,” “estudiantes en contextos de
interculturalidad y bilingüismo”)” (*Plan Nacional de Educación Obligatoria
y Formación Docente 2012–2016*; CFE No. 188/12).

The expression “white” is used by Wichi people to refer to non-indigenous
people. In this chapter we take this native category in the sense in which
they use it.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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