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PER - Quechua
Cuzco highlands village Andes

| Quechua, traditional language from the Andes |

Peru has two official languages: Spanish and the foremost indigenous language, Quechua. Spanish is used by the government and the media and in education and formal trade. Amerindians who live in the Andean highlands speak Quechua and Aymara and are ethnically distinct from the diverse indigenous groups who live on the eastern side of the Andes and in the tropical lowlands adjacent to the Amazon basin.

For 2005, government figures place Spanish as being spoken by 80.3% of the population, but among Amerindian languages another decrease is registered. Of the indigenous languages, Quechua remains the most spoken, and even today is used by some 16.2% of the total Peruvian population, or a third of Peru’s total indigenous population. The number of Aymara-speakers and other indigenous languages is placed at 3%, and foreign languages 0.2%.



More power for an ancient language

Hilaria Supa wears the ancestral clothing and round hat typical of peasant women from her village near Cuzco, the former Inca capital in Peru. She also speaks Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, which is still used widely in the Peruvian Andes. She claims that she has no real need for Spanish because her neighbors all speak Quechua. But that doesn’t go for other members of Peru’s Congress, to which Ms Supa was recently elected.

Along with a colleague, Ms Supa, who speaks fluent Spanish, has insisted on speaking to the legislature in her first language. This, she says, will increase respect for Andean Indian culture and help the language to survive. It has forced the Congress to hire translators. Estimates of the prevalence of Quechua vary widely. In Peru, there are thought to be 3 to 4.5 millions speakers, with others in Bolivia and Ecuador. The language has long been in slow decline, chiefly because the children of migrants to the cities rarely speak it. But it is now getting a lot more attention.

In recent months, Google has launched a version of its search engine in Quechua while Microsoft unveiled Quechua translations of Windows and Office. Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui, who last year translated “Don Quijote” into Quechua, recalls that a nationalist military government in the 1960s ordered that the language be taught in all public schools. It didn’t happen, because of lack of money to train teachers. By law its official use—and bilingual education—is now limited to highland areas where it is predominant.

This month Peru’s new president, Alan García, signed a law making discrimination on the basis of language a criminal offence. Applying this will be hard: a recent poll found that two-thirds of respondents believe the country to be racist. Some may argue that Peruvians should be concentrating on learning English—the government has signed a free-trade agreement with the United States. But Peru will only become a harmonious democracy when it recognizes and overcomes its ethnic inequalities. Ms Supa is engaging in gesture politics—but she may have a point.

Aug 17th 2006 From The Economist.

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