Elite and Minority Bilingualism in Colombia
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Elite and Minority Bilingualism in Colombia
Colombia is a multilingual country. There are multiple cultures that speak indigenous languages spread all around the Colombian territory. According to Ardila (2006) there is great richness in the country’s linguistic diversity. Besides Spanish, there are more than 60 indigenous languages, two Creole  and more than 12 families have been identified, there are also some independent languages and some that have not been classified.[Image: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/americas/colombia_pol_2001.jpg]
Different Views of Bilingualism
Nevertheless, high socio-economic classes have a different perspective on what bilingualism is in Colombia. They consider themselves bilingual because they speak a foreign language, English for the most, and they want their children to become bilingual even at the cost of losing part of their own culture. The purpose of this paper is to present that there is a majority of the population who is becoming bilingual at the cost of their own culture, both in the population who wants to learn English, as well as in the indigenous population who wants to learn Spanish.
Bilingualism as an Asset
Based on the premise that the possession of symbolic resources, such as certain highly valued types of linguistic skills, cultural knowledge and specialized skills, helps to attain access to valuable social, educational and material resources, many parents of the higher socio-economical classes from Colombia, choose bilingual education for their children. Most of the time, they chose English as a highly valued language.
Bilingual Education in Colombia
There are many examples of schools that offer bilingual education. Grimm’s Kindergarten  is a nursery school that teaches English to its students beginning at the age of three. This is a very controversial age at which to start learning a second language. Many authors may argue that it is important to have a solid foundation in the mother tongue before starting the process of learning a second language. In spite of the controversy, many parents choose this school so that their children will have access to a bilingual school later.
Education for the Indigenous Communities
Based on this same premise, many indigenous people have learned to speak Spanish thus losing part of their cultural identity. In a recent interview observed in class, an indigenous person from the Huitotos was explaining how, in the last few years, people who are 30 or younger understand the Huitoto language but do not speak it. They only speak Spanish. Situations like this may eventually lead to language death, and since language is so closely related to culture, the latter will be lost too.
According to the UK Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) (Crystal, 2000) a language dies when nobody speaks it. If the situation of the Huitotos continues with the same tendency, pretty soon only few elders will speak it and when the last one dies, the language will die too.
Bilingualism and Better Opportunities
Bilingualism is closely related to “high quality” education. Parents who seek better education and wish to send their children to study abroad, tend to choose bilingual schools for them. They believe that having a second language will facilitate access to better universities abroad. As for indigenous communities, the state has not provided bilingual education for them. If they want to go to school, they study in Spanish. This is very dangerous in the case of languages that lack alphabet, because there is no possibility of having written texts and the only “learning language” becomes Spanish. Although the circumstances of the children who attend private bilingual schools in the big cities of Colombia and the indigenous children who attend public schools in far away regions is quite different, there might be some similarities behind the reasons for them to attend that kind of education. In both cases parents are seeking for better opportunities and there is a language with higher status. In the case of the indigenous children, Spanish has a higher status, in the case of the upper class children, a foreign language, which is usually English, has a higher value. The difference is that in the case of the upper class students, there may be situations of additive bilingualism in which the acquisition and learning of a foreign language is useful for future opportunities. On the other hand, for the indigenous children the situation is the opposite. The minority home language is seen as low status, and being bilingual may be associated with feelings of inferiority. This may lead to a loss of cultural identity. The latter case is called subtractive bilingualism and is often associated with submersion education where a minority language speaker has to “sink or swim” at school without any support (Mejia, 2002)  .
How do bilingual schools in Bogotá deal with culture?
According to Mejía and Tejada (2001) there are three types of schools in Colombia. There are the bilingual and bicultural schools which are the ones that have been founded and supported by foreign governments and in which there is also a strong emphasis on the other countries’ cultures. In this case the schools are not only bilingual, but also bicultural.Examples of these schools are Colegio Santo Tomás de Aquino , Colegio Nueva Granada , Colegio Anglo Colombiano , and Colegio Helvetia  to name a few. There are the Colombian schools which are founded and directed by Colombians and their interest is to teach a foreign language (English) but to respect our Colombian culture. Some of these schools may be considered intercultural. Some examples of these schools are Colegio Tilata , Colegio Los Nogales , among others. And finally there are the schools that teach English as a Foreign Language.
How are urban high class children similar to indigenous children in relation to bilingualism?
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7a/Cali-from-cristo-rey-2.jpg A parallel can be made between what might happen to Colombian children who attend the foreign bilingual schools and the indigenous children who attend public schools in which the teaching language is Spanish. As Mejia has pointed out in some of her conferences, these foreign schools may be considered monolingual in the foreign language. Children are exposed to the foreign language and traditions more than to Spanish and to Colombian traditions. In some cases, these children may experience identity crisis. Mejia and Tejada (2001) cite the case of a woman who was called María Esther and she attended a foreign school in Cali, and she had her name changed to a more American one and she always struggled to be Colombian, to be called by her real name and not the one they had given her. She ended up spelling her name in a very unique way, and drawing a little rose at the end as a way to get an identity and she didn’t let anybody change that. This can be related to the case of the Huitotos that was mentioned earlier. They attend school and end up speaking Spanish and eventually losing their mother tongue. They might feel a sense of acculturation. The term is used to refer to the acquisition of a second identity, which is at the heart of culture learning (Brown, 2000). This is also the case of María Esther. The Colombian bilingual schools make strong efforts to maintain and respect the Colombian culture. An example of this kind of school is Gimnasio La Montaña . According to the Academic Council Document of the school, children enhance their expression by exercising their linguistic abilities (listening, reading, speaking and writing). Even though both languages (English and Spanish) are learned simultaneously, the curriculum is organized so that the cognitive processes take place in Spanish first and then in English.
During the preschool stage, children are exposed to a bilingual context in which they get adapted to schooling in both languages. The desire is that children acquire the second language in a natural way, using the Natural Approach (one of the methods to teach a second language that implies using the four abilities (listening, speaking, reading and writing) simultaneously and in context. In primary, the focus of teaching is in developing abilities to understand ideas in a sentence and to express their own ideas with coherence. Once they have mastered the basic elements to communicate orally and written in Spanish, they begin the reading process in English. The next step in the process is to understand and produce paragraphs and finally complete texts with complete semantic and syntactic structures. At the end of their schooling, the focus is on enhancing their linguistic knowledge and abilities through the study of literature (Academic Council Document, Gimnasio La Montaña, 1998).
Another important issue is that in La Montaña there is a strong emphasis in the use of language as a way to establish interpersonal relationships. The development of communication expands to the second language, slowly the students become less dependant on their mother tongue and start to build on the elements of English (Academic Council Document, Gimnasio La Montaña, 1998, my translation).
La Montaña places a strong emphasis in respecting and appreciating the Colombian culture. In this case there is care in dealing with the subject of identity. Nevertheless, there is a strong connection between this school and matters of power and prestige. This is a private school in which tuition is expensive and in which there is a “bonus” and an admissions exam. Once again it is an example of how much parents are willing to give so that their children become bilingual.
In contrast to a school like this, public schools which attend the indigenous population do not consider issues of culture. Children are expected to learn Spanish and to assimilate the culture. As mentioned before, there is the difficulty of the languages that do not have alphabet and in that case it is impossible to have texts in their mother tongue. Fortunately there is a group of linguists from the Universidad Nacional  who are working hard in studying and analyzing the Colombian indigenous languages in order to protect them from language death (Informal conversations with Dra. Olga Ardila and others, Bilinglatam 2006).
Colombia and Latin America
The case of Colombia is similar to other countries in Latin America. Dra. Rebeca Barriga, from Mexico, in a conference given at Bilinglatam (2006)   mentioned that in her country, in spite of the rich language diversity, it is very difficult to know the exact number of people who speak a certain language. When in the census they are asked if they speak Spanish, everyone says yes, but when asked about indigenous languages, many people deny the fact that they speak it because the language is associated with low status. This also represents an identity crisis.
Spanish is a strong language and the amount of people who speak it all over the world will not let it die, at least in the near future. Nevertheless, children who attend bilingual schools may end up having stronger skills in the foreign language than in Spanish since they are exposed to the first one more than to the latter one. The problem is not language death, but creating in them a sense of admiring and appreciating the foreign country’s culture more than our own.
Learning a second language is important for children and even adults all over the world. It helps us communicate with others and understand other cultures. It broadens our horizons and erases barriers between cultures and countries. There are many reasons for people to become bilingual. The previous examples show how groups as different as indigenous communities, and urban children from high socio-economical classes in Colombia, are becoming bilingual for different purposes. The problem is not becoming bilingual, but the cost and the ways of becoming bilingual. It is necessary for governments and educators to design policies and curricula through which students may learn a foreign language without losing their identity, respecting and appreciating their own as well as the foreign culture. Colombia’s linguistic richness and diversity must be protected by all of us. This linguistic variety is also related to cultural diversity. As a country this represents an asset in terms of cultural background, different views of the world and to construct personal relations. It is our responsibility to understand, value and appreciate our indigenous communities and to protect them from language death. It is also our responsibility to value, appreciate and protect our language and traditions.
Ardila, O. (1989) “Diversidad lingüística y multilinguiesmo en los grupos Tucano del Vaupés. Forma y Función no.4 Bogotá. Universidad Nacional http://www.PlanStudyAbroad.com Ardila, O. (2004) Lingüística aborigen colombiana: la problemática de las lenguas Tucano. Forma y Función N. 17 Bogotá. Universidad Nacional
Barriga, R. (2006) Las Caras del Bilingüismo en Mexico. Conferencia dictada en el International Symposium on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education in Latin America. Bogotá
Consejo Académico Gimnasio La Montaña (1998) El Proceso Comunicativo en el Gimnasio La Montaña. En Bayona, J.C. & Rosso, L. Eds. Memorias del Segundo Simposio Bilingüismo, Función Cognoscitiva y Educación. Bogotá: Gimnasio Moderno.
Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mejía, A.M. de, & Tejada, H. (2001) La construcción de modalidades educativas bilingües en colegios monolingües de Cali: Colegio Gimnasio La Colina. Informe de investigación, Universidad del Valle
Uffalussy, D. (1998) Experiencia de educación bilingüe en Grimm’s Kindergarten. . En Bayona, J.C. & Rosso, L. Eds. Memorias del Segundo Simposio Bilingüismo, Función Cognoscitiva y Educación. Bogotá: Gimnasio Moderno.