What goes around (eventually) comes around: A partial return to mother-tongue instruction in P’urhepecha


With one of the world’s 6000-7000 languages disappearing every couple of weeks, the fate of minority languages across the globe is looking bleak. The situation in Mexico is no different: 21 of the 143 UNESCO-recognized languages spoken in the country are considered critically endangered, while the rest remain in varying states of vulnerability. One of these languages is P’urhepecha, spoken by around 125,000 people in the state of Michoacán.

This number may sound like the language is quite vital, but the reality is that only a minority of children are learning it at home. 1 For any language to survive under pressure from a dominant national language, it needs to feature prominently in the education system. In this case, children need to be schooled in P’urhepecha as well as Spanish, and to see the value in learning to read and write both languages.

The first attempts at P’urhepecha literacy were instigated by Franciscan friars in the early sixteenth century as a means of Christianising locals, but these attempts never really took hold. 2 Around 400 years later, in 1939, the Tarascan Project was launched to teach P’urhepecha. The aim was to promote indigenous literacy and to act as a bridge to literacy in Spanish.

Led by a team of US and Mexican researchers, the project developed materials for group and individual use, trained native-speaker teachers, and established a printing press for public information leaflets and language-learning materials. The programme was fast and effective, forming literate individuals in 30 to 45 days. 3 But funding was cut for the project after just over a year, effectively ending native language education for decades.

The history of the Tarascan Project demonstrated important points that have entered into other efforts at mother tongue instruction. First, national governments of conquered lands often oppose bilingualism because the mother tongue strengthens a sense of identity apart from that of the nation. But a sense of shared identity is critical in engaging the indigenous community in economic development and support for those unable to care for themselves, as well as in reining in destructive tendencies, such as violence and addiction.

Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news.

Despite the introduction of bilingual and bicultural education across Mexico in the 1970s, Spanish remains the language of instruction at all levels. 4 Only a couple of hours a week are devoted to the indigenous language at primary level. However two rural primary schools in Michoacán have shifted wholesale to P’urhepecha-medium instruction in an encouraging but rare example of indigenous language promotion in an educational context. 5 In collaboration with their communities, teachers at two primary schools in San Isidro and Uringuitiro have developed a programme and curriculum that emphasises P’urhepecha language and culture, where teaching for all subjects is provided in P’urhepecha from years 1 to 6.

To see how this mother-tongue instruction impacts on young literacy, we (the anthropologist Cynthia Groff and I) are currently conducting a study of P’urhepecha writing samples. We are studying stories written by four year-five P’urhepecha-dominant students, who were instructed to retell the P’urhepecha story Tukuru ‘The Owl’. We are interested in how the texts are written in terms of cultural appropriateness, lexical diversity, and morphological complexity.

Extract of a writing sample from a P’urhepecha-medium primary school.

We have identified many examples of typical P’urhepecha discourse structure, which relies heavily on the coordinator ka ‘and’, as well as non-finite verbs ending in -ni, e.g. ka tukuru no uxeni uandani ka…. ‘and the owl did not do, say, and…’. Pupils also use Spanish connectors such as komu (como) ‘like’, pari/para ‘for, in order to’, and porka (porque) ‘because’. This is a common feature of spoken P’urhepecha and is also found in other indigenous languages that are in contact with Spanish. 6

P’urhepecha verbs are pretty complex: a well-formed verb constitutes a stem plus up to 8 or 9 suffixes (there are no prefixes) to express meanings of tense, aspect, mood, location and manner, to mention only a few. The verbs in the writing samples generally include three suffixes, predominantly those expressing an unspecified action, past and person marking, e.g. arhi-x-p-ti ‘s/he said’, weka-x-p-ti ‘s/he wanted’, but also wanta-nts-kwarhi-ni ‘to speak to oneself’, where the suffix –kwarhi marks the reflexive form, translated here as ‘oneself’.

These examples show that the children can represent their own contemporary version of the language, which includes many elements from Spanish, in a grammatically appropriate way. But more importantly, it highlights how a minority language – their own language – can be and should be represented in the written medium, giving it as much value as the dominant national language.

Like the Tarascan Project, the P’urhepecha-medium primary school offers mother-tongue instruction, emphasizing the need for speakers to be educated first in their native language. 7 Such an approach encourages cognitive development and the acquisition of competence in other domains, not just language. 8

Both projects also teach and use an alphabet adapted to the needs of the language, even if inconsistencies can be observed in the children’s writing samples (but this is to be expected for children of this age in any language!). While several alphabets still exist, they all use Latin characters only, unlike the illustrated alphabet below. This enables an easy transfer to Spanish and ensures compatibility with modern communication devices, especially mobile phones.

The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project.

The primary school model is a much-needed, longer-term solution to the current low levels of P’urhepecha literacy and transmission. It also provides an example of best practice of mother-tongue instruction that can be emulated by other schools in Michoacán and further afield.

However, for the programme to succeed fully, mother-tongue instruction needs to continue through secondary level.

Kate Bellamy is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Leiden. She is in the part of the ERC project ‘The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes: A search for early migratory relations between North and South America’. Her research focuses on prehistoric and early modern interaction between Purépecha and other languages of Mesoamerica and South America. 

Header image: ‘The P’urhepecha language is very good’, section of a language-learning wall in Santa Fe de la Laguna, Michoacán, courtesy of Kate Bellamy.

In-text image 1: Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news. Photo by Frances L. (Swadesh) Quintana.

In-text image 2: Extract of a writing sample from the P’urhepecha-medium primary school ‘Miguel Hidalgo’, San Isidro, Michoacán.

In-text image 3: The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center.


  1. Chamoreau, Grammaire du purépecha, parlé sur les ïles du lac de Pátzcuaro (Munich, 2000).
  2. Hamel, ‘Bilingual Education for Indigenous Communities in Mexico’ in: Cummins & Hornberger (eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, (2nd edn, vol. 5, 2008), pp. 311-322.
  3. Barrera-Vásquez, ‘The Tarascan Project in Mexico’ in UNESCO (ed.), The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education (Paris, 1953), pp. 77-86.
  4. This bilingual and bicultural education is now known as intercultural bilingual education.
  5. Hamel & Francis, The Teaching of Spanish as a Second Language in an Indigenous Bilingual Intercultural Curriculum, Language, Culture and Curriculum , (2006), pp. 171-188.
  6. See Chamoreau, 2007 and Bakker & Hekking, ‘Constraints on morphological borrowing: Evidence from Latin America’ in Robbeets & Johanson (eds), Copies Versus Cognates in Bound Morphology (Leiden, 2012), pp. 187-220.
  7. Carlisle & Beeman, ‘The effects of language of instruction on the reading and writing of first-grade Hispanic children’ in Scientific Studies of Reading 4 (2000), pp. 331-353.
  8. Dutcher & Tucker, ‘The use of first and second languages in education: A review of international experience’ in Pacific Islands Discussion Paper Series, no. 1, (Washington DC, 1996).
Tags : Indigenous historylanguage policyMexicominority languageP’urhepecha
Kate Bellamy

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