Enhancing Zapotec Language Revitalization through Discussion

By Julia Nee

A mother dekerneling corn, submitted by a Zapotec language learner as part of a Photovoice project where students were asked to take a picture of “what speaking Zapotec means to me.” (Photo courtesy of Julia Nee).

In Teotitlán del Valle in southern Mexico, there are many people who desire to use and promote Zapotec, the indigenous language currently spoken by about 3,600 of the town’s 5,600 inhabitants. Although oppressive historical, political, and economic forces have pushed some Teotitecos to shift towards Spanish monolingualism and the opportunities for social and economic advancement that proficiency in Spanish offer, both parents and children continue to fight for the right and ability to learn and use the Zapotec language. As an elementary school student of Zapotec explained, using the language is an important part of maintaining cultural continuity across generations; speaking Zapotec “[es] respetar lo que nos dejaron los antepasados, por eso quiero seguile hablando y enseñarles a mis hermanos.

To support community desire for the continued and strengthened presence of Zapotec in the community, I have been collaborating with the municipal government, community language committee, and public library in Teotitlán to host Zapotec language camps for kids in August and January each year. We use a communication-based instructional approach in the classroom paired with excursions around town to carry out task-based learning where students engage in Zapotec conversations with native speakers using the language we’ve practiced in the classroom. For example, in one lesson, students learn the names of local plants and animals and how to ask questions like, “What’s that?” and “Where is the lizard?” before taking a hike to the top of the nearby mountain Picacho with their parents and Zapotec speakers where they complete an “I Spy” activity, locating and naming the plants and animals we’ve been discussing in class.

Picacho mountain, with Teotitlán’s Catholic Church and pre-Hispanic temple in the foreground. (Photo by Julia Nee).

These days, language revitalization initiatives like those in Teotitlán are being developed around the world, but the theories of language learning and teaching, as well as methods for evaluating student learning within the unique contexts of language revitalization, are still being developed. One place where those involved in developing and implementing language revitalization projects come together to share ideas is the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC), hosted at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. With the support of the Center for Latin American Studies’ Indigenous Languages of Latin America (ILLA) Travel Fund, I was able to present the work that we have been doing in Teotitlán at ICLDC in 2019.

This year, ICLDC had a special focus on the topic of “connecting communities, languages & technology,” which brought experts on language documentation, language revitalization, and technology together into the same space to see how projects from different fields could enhance and support one another. I attended a talk by Mary Hermes, Melissa Engman, and Kevin Roach whose groundbreaking approach to language documentation included conversational participants wearing GoPro cameras on headbands, allowing researchers to not only hear the language used, but also to track participants’ gaze as they spoke with elders and engaged with their physical surroundings. In a workshop led by Dr. Wesley Leonard, Dr. Megan Lukaniec, and Adrienne Tsikewa, I engaged with other language activists to think about the ways in which technology could be reimagined in order to overtly work towards decolonization through language revitalization. We discussed practices like transforming the individualistic nature of interacting, for example, with a smartphone app, into a format like augmented reality that could facilitate intergenerational, interpersonal communication such as might happen between elders and children in traditional contexts. Another talk, by Carmen Jany, addressed considerations of how to deal with code-switching between Spanish and Mixe (another language of southern Mexico) in the process of documenting and revitalizing the language in a way that both validated the language of code-switchers and worked against an overall shift to Spanish language dominance.

The author presenting the Zapotec language camp at ICLDC 6. (Photo courtesy of Julia Nee).

In addition to presenting work on Zapotec, I was able to co-present (alongside Andrew Garrett, Edwin Ko, Zachary O’Hagan, and Ronald Sprouse) new developments in UC Berkeley’s California Language Archive, which houses a wide range of archival materials, including collections on 65 Latin American languages (see the slides from our talk here). Our new user interface allows researchers to curate their own archival collections incrementally, making the process of archiving more efficient and timely. By presenting this new system at ICLDC, we were able to raise awareness and promote the sustainable archiving of documentation on endangered languages so that language activists and researchers of the future will have access to these precious resources.

After four busy days of exchanging ideas, I felt reinvigorated to continue my research on best practices for language revitalization in Teotitlán. The feedback I’d received on the language camps has given me new directions to explore and new methodologies for language teaching that I will be able to use to more effectively engage young Zapotec language learners. Thanks to the support of the ILLA Travel Fund, I have a new set of tools that I learned through the ICLDC conference which I can use in the development of the next Zapotec language camp, planned for August 2019.


JULIA NEE is a PhD candidate in the Linguistics department, with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization. After finishing her BA in linguistics at the University of Chicago, she moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to teach English before returning to the U.S. to continue her education. During her time in Mexico, she began to study Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec, an indigenous language spoken outside of Oaxaca City. Her research now centers on language documentation and revitalization within the Zapotec community. 






This entry was posted in Berkeley Student, Indigenous Languages of Latin America Travel Fund, Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Enhancing Zapotec Language Revitalization through Discussion

  1. lentzspanish says:

    Hello Julia, exciting to hear of this work being done! I’m a language educator in the Berkeley area and part of a vast network of TPRS/CI practitioners, and want to invite you to the IGNITE 2019 summer conference for indigenous language educators using principles of comprehensible input. I learned under one of the presenters, Wade Blevins, at a similar conference a few years ago, and found his approach very effective; I was acquiring the new language quickly and joyfully in a communal approach. https://www.elevateeducationconsulting.com/ignite-2019 Please feel free to reach out anytime if you’d like to chat more about TPRS/CI. All best to you!

    • jnee03 says:

      Thanks for the invitation! I’d love to be in touch and learn more about the techniques you use. Feel free to email me at jnee at berkeley dot edu!

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