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Guardianes de la Lengua: Documentary Series on Latin America’s Endangered Languages

Today on the ELAR blog, ELDP grantee Santiago Durante shares on a documentary series about endangered languages which he has been working on for Argentinean public cultural television channel, Canal Encuentro. 

Please tell us a bit about the documentary series.

This documentary series is called Guardianes de la Lengua (guardians of the languages), and it is about Latin America’s endangered languages. It consists of eight episodes, one per language: Chana (Argentina), Yagan (Chile), Guana (Paraguay), Matapí (Colombia), Tehuelche (Argentina), Tapiete (Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia), Tinigua (Colombia) and Uru-Chipaya (Bolivia). It is hosted by me (former ELDP grantee) and it follows the journey of a young linguist to record some data about the languages, learn a little about their phonology, word formation, grammar and lexicon and to get to know the communities that speaks them. In my journey, I also talk with experts on language documentation and revitalization from different countries. and we want to tell the story of the people that keeps this important knowledge not only for their communities but for all humanity.

The documentary series airs on Canal Encuentro (Argentina’s educational and cultural TV channel) but it is also available on YouTube. It was produced by Cholula Films and Atrox specially for Canal Encuentro and we had the full support of Fernanda Rotandaro, the channel’s director.

Azucena, Guana speaker, Paraguay

Was there a special motivation behind getting involved in this project? 

I had both a personal motivation and a professional one:

In the personal aspect, this project allowed me to get to know eight different communities in a short period of time. For a field linguist like me, this was a unique opportunity. In a few months I met wonderful people from the depths of the Amazonian jungle to the most southern part of our continent. I had access to languages of different Amerindian families and this gave me a broad view of my continent’s language diversity.

Professionally, I think it is very important to spread the knowledge about language endangerment. The majority of the people don’t know about this problem. Spreading awareness of language endangerment is the first step to help preventing language loss. When I talked with Juan Pablo Tobal, the series director, I realized he was very respectful and that the project would produce a good educational product.

Maloca (communal house of the Matapi) Puerto Libre, Colombia

How did you experience the difference between filming for language documentation and for TV? 

The first obvious difference was that in my language documentation project, I was in charge of filming, and in this TV series we had a professional film crew: a director (Juan Pablo Tobal), two camera men (Diego Seppi and Gio Croatto) a soundman (in the first episodes it was Santiago Rozadas and in the last ones it was Patricio Tosco) and two field producers (Dalmira Tobal and Carla Stacul). This project was highly collective and my documentation project was mostly individual.

Also we had different motivations, in my documentation project my priority was scientific and in this series the aim was to spread a specific knowledge in a way that is understandable for non-experts. We also paid a lot of attention to the lives of the community members. The human aspect was as important as the linguistic one.

Matapi children in traditional masks, Colombia

Can you share any insights from the interviewees? 

The interviewees shared with us different perspectives of language endangerment contexts:

Don Blas (last known Chana speaker) was part of a family that kept the knowledge of the language as a secret for generations. When he lost his brother, he revealed the situation in the search of another speaker. Unfortunately, he didn’t find one, but this event allowed Pedro Viegas Barros (an excellent Argentinian linguist) to document a language that was considered lost for almost two hundred years.

Dora Manchado is the last fluent speaker of Aonek’o a’yen and she is teaching the language to her granddaughter as well as to other community members interested in learning it. Something similar is taking place with the four grandmothers of the Guaná community who can speak the language and are teaching it to the children of the school.

Isaac Flores, Uru speaker, Bolivia

What do you think is the value of documentaries about endangered languages for our field?  

I think that this kind of documentary helps to spread the knowledge about language endangerment to audiences that are not part of the scientific community. In Latin America, most people ignore this situation and you can not help prevent a problem if you are not aware of it. This issue demands actions not only from the speaker communities and the linguists, but from society as a whole.

Specifically, in Latin America we are living a process in which numerous people are getting in touch with their aboriginal origins. This is a very difficult task because for years to be indigenous carried a huge stigma. I think documentaries like this help in this particular process.

Santa Ana de Chipaya, Bolivia

 Is there anything else you would like to share about this project?  

We will be filming a second season of the show in 2018 where we will visit new locations in Latin America and get to know new languages and wonderful people!

Thank you, Santiago! You can watch the first episode of season one on vimeo, here (use password: faustino). To learn more about Guardianes de la Lengua, visit the Guardianes de la Lengua Facebook page. New episodes will be airing every Wednesday this month and then will be available on YouTube.

Blog post by Santiago Durante

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