Mexico: The Challenge of Literacy and Multilingualism

By Francis, Norbert; Andrade, Rafael Nieto | Childhood Education, September 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Mexico: The Challenge of Literacy and Multilingualism


Francis, Norbert, Andrade, Rafael Nieto, Childhood Education


Mexico's literacy development and school language policy is of interest to educators for a number of reasons. The challenges of literacy learning in a multilingual and multicultural society such as Mexico's are similar to those found in many countries. Attention to linguistic diversity in literacy teaching, however, is a rather recent focus in both research and practice. In this regard, the UNESCO (1953) declaration on the use of vernacular languages in literacy represents the modern-day turning point in educators' awareness of the complex issues involved when more than one language must be considered in teaching.

Historical Antecedents

Following the Spanish conquest in the first half of the 16th century, Mexico became a center for contact between European and indigenous languages; in effect, it was one of the first known widespread experiments in bilingual literacy in the Western hemisphere. The lessons of this experience continue to influence present-day discussions on school language policy and language teaching.

The first schools and institutes of higher learning established soon after the fall of the Aztec capital in 1521 were attended, in large part, by students who had been enrolled in the calmecac ("upper-track" schools) and other learning institutions of Aztec civilization. Thus, it is important to note that formal education was not introduced by the Spanish. The new colonial schools received a student population that was transferring, so to speak, from one system to another. The former had been destroyed by the conquest, and the latter was built on the European model. During the pre-colonial period, Nahuatl was the primary language spoken by the Aztecs and other peoples of Central Mexico. As such, it was the language of learning, art, and ceremony.

The colonial missionary-run schools, transmitters of the new culture and religion, included among their faculty members some of the leading humanist scholars of the day, such as Bernardino de Sahagun and Alonso de Molina. Particularly on the questions of language teaching and educational language policy in general, the pedagogical models they put into practice were far ahead of their time. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to point out that in the area of bilingual literacy, present-day practice has yet to rise to the same level as that achieved by the humanist educators during the first decades of Spanish colonial rule. Since language and literacy instruction were driven by the need to achieve content objectives (primarily tied to evangelization), and not by a policy of imposing the Spanish language over and above all other considerations, literacy in Nahuatl flourished for an extended period (until the first half of the 1600s). The subsequent Spanish-only policy, promoted by the colonial administration and initially resisted by most friars, eventually prevailed, and still holds sway, despite official endorsement of dual language literacy teaching. By the late 1500s, literacy in indigenous languages (ILs) began to be undermined, never to recover from the subsequent shift to Spanish as the virtually exclusive language of reading and writing.

Nevertheless, institutes such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco were instrumental in the emergence of an indigenous literacy that was primarily, but not exclusively, tied to religious teaching. Literacy, taught in the missionary schools, spread and developed among a generation of indigenous writers in Nahuatl (and other Indian languages), Latin, and Spanish. Widespread use of Nahuatl survived in the area of legal documentation (titles, petitions, declarations, official letters, etc.) well into the 18th century, although it was largely pushed aside in the other domains. See Garibay (1983) on the pre-Conquest indigenous education system; Heath (1972), Lockhart (1992), Blanco (1989), and Leon-Portilla (1992) for an account of the early period of bilingual literacy; Gonzalbo (1988), Cifuentes & Ros (1993), and Lockhart (1991) for a discussion of the displacement of Nahuatl from the domains of literacy and formal instruction; and Pellicer (1993) for a review of exclusionary language policies that effectively drove the indigenous languages into isolation and fragmentation in local villages and towns. …

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