Language; A Barrier to Learning

                                                                                                                                                                                                By Mac Wooten

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.  mark twain

 What if your child didn’t speak the language used in their school ?                                                       

In a country as diverse as Peru, there are some 103 individual living languages that coexist with Spanish. Twelve languages are believed to now have no known speakers.  Of the almost 30 million people of Peru, 20 million speak Spanish, 10 million speak Quechua and a small percentage speak Aymara (jungle regions) and/or combinations of these languages.  Life in the US does not expose us to these issues * exception (Bronx or Queens N.Y.)  I was born in the South!  However, just suppose for a moment and for the sake of argument, the native language of your child was Jabber and English was the language used in their school.  Yes, of course your child speaks some English but often does not completely understand many of the terms, words and cannot fully grasp the meanings in the other language.   Remember this is for the sake of argument and there is a huge amount of cognitive (learning) that takes place during a child’s younger years.   Thank heaven, when they reach their teenage years, they already know everything and this becomes a non-issue.

In Peru, it is a serious problem in the classroom when indigenous children don’t understand much of the content of what is taught in Spanish language and conversely it is a serious problem when everything is taught solely in Quechua or one of the other minor languages.  UNICEF reports that nationwide, only 11 percent of students from the country’s 44 different indigenous groups attend bilingual schools.  In Amazon regions like Huánuco and Madre de Dios, only 8.6 and 9.9 percent of primary school children received *BIE (Bilingual Intercultural Education) respectively.  There is a shortage of bilingual education in the Andean regions, home to the country’s main Amerindian groups, the Quechua and Aymara.  In the Ancash region (where we focus our efforts) about ¼ of indigenous children receive some BIE, in Puno 34 percent, and in Huancavelica, the poorest region in the country, 40 percent.  In (UGELs) Units of Local Educational Management, 12 out of 45 (that provided information) identified teachers who had received specialized BIE training, among the educators that they had hired.  *(this is unconfirmed)  Another nine UGELs reported hiring 530 teachers without training in BIE, while 87 teachers did not even have a teaching degree.  Having a teaching degree is not mandatory to receiving a teaching job.  The problem is not just coverage, but quality. “Not all teachers are really familiar with the subjects they teach, and students have to put up with their schedules when they miss class to do errands.  Many of these are two room schools with an overseeing district office far away.  In some of the schools we work with, everything is being taught in one language (Quechua).  Quechua is the main language of the area and instruction in Spanish (the main language for 2/3 of the country’s population) was used very little.  There isn’t enough virtual paper in my Post to cover past and present issues regarding why this takes place.  However …. poverty, high unemployment, the lack of importance placed on education, culture, national and local government, poorly trained teachers, poorly funded schools and poor policies are some of the problems.  A bright spot on the horizon is that the new president Ollanta Humala says that education reform is one of his priorities.

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The level of education and quality of schools in Peru does not compare in any way to corresponding education and schools in the states.  A 6th grade education in the states is light years past that of a 6th grade education in Peru.  Critical thinking is not something taught here.   Primary school is (1st thru 6th grades)  Secondary school is (7th thru 11th grades).  There is, however, access to quality education in private schools that only the wealthiest can afford.

Rural girls face the highest barriers to education  A study, based on official figures from 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, shows that 83.7 percent of 12 to 16-year-olds in urban areas attended secondary school (past 6th grade), compared to 66.4 percent of that age group in rural areas.   Did you get that?  Only 2/3 of the children  12 to 16 years old in rural areas attend school.  While there is no difference in the proportion of girls and boys in rural areas who enroll in secondary school, there is a large gap with respect to how many complete their schooling.  Only 43 percent of young rural women between the ages of 20 and 24 had finished secondary school (11th grade), compared to 58 percent of young men of that age.

I can speak to this issue from a personal experience.  One of our 14-year-old neighbors does not attend school.  She spends her days tending their 3 sheep and 2 burros.  She takes them somewhere to graze as they have no land of their own to pasture them.  She is one of seven children.  They have no indoor water or bathroom facilities.  They live less than a ¼ mile from a school.  When asked why she doesn’t go to school, she says that she didn’t like school, she got behind and couldn’t catch up,  she didn’t understand what was being taught and someone needs to take care of the animals every day.  Girls drop out of school at a much higher rate than boys.  The pregnancy rate among dropouts is climbing.  The national average is 5.1 children per family.  If you’re young,  have no job, can’t go hang out at the mall, have few other options or opportunities, can’t play on the computer, don’t attend school, your parents have little to no formal education and you have little to occupy your time, there’s plenty of  time to try sex.  The rate of teen pregnancy is quite evident when you look around during the day and see the youth with nothing to do.  In many cases, teens are tending either the family’s animals or tending their own family.  According to the latest figures, the average family size in Peru is 5.1 as compared to 3.14 in the U.S.

The infrastructure generally holds few accountable for the quality of education or what and how curriculum is presented.  As we all know, there is little incentive to going or staying in school if you are not learning and do not know it will open the door to a better future.  Even here in Peru, pasturing animals doesn’t pay a life’s wage.  I have many times observed teachers presenting material to the classes.  No student asks any questions, no further explanations are given and the teacher moves on to another topic.  It seems the program here often is every child left behind, especially if it inconveniences the instructor!  Please understand, I’m not criticizing the teachers, I’m criticizing the system they work within.

This is an area where we can help, This is an area where you can help.  Many of the teachers we work with do understand the importance of education with regard to the future of these children and this country.  They truly want to learn and  offer a quality education to these children.  The fact is that they have few resources or access to help.  Teach a Teacher’s Volunteers provide resources and access for teachers where national policies have failed this generation horribly.  We work with teachers who truly want to learn and make a difference.  Consider Volunteering for us or making a small donation today.  Help us make a difference in real lives.

Teach a Teacher 201 Chestnut Street Missoula Montana 59801

*BIE is a national policy enacted in the mid 1990’s. It was developed as law on the principles of diversity and pluralism.  Recent policies in the past mandated Spanish as a national language and eradication of indigenous languages have now shifted to policies that recognize diversity as a source of national wealth.

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Mac Wooten is President of Teach a Teacher nonprofit.  A native of Greenville S.C. We live and focus most of our  work in the Ancash region of Peru.

2 thoughts on “Language; A Barrier to Learning

  1. I wanted to check up and allow you to know how much I valued discovering your web site today. I will consider it a good honor to work at my workplace and be able to make real use of the tips discussed on your website and also get involved in visitors’ remarks like this. Should a position involving guest article author become offered at your end, make sure you let me know.

    • Dear Damaris
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I would be happy to share some space on my virtual soapbox as I believe everyone needs to speak on the issues of Education. It seems apparent to me that because of a myriad of reasons (economy, society, declining social values, and 101 other reasons) education is losing ground faster that the rain forests! It truly puzzles me that we generally hear nothing more than a low murmur from the parents and that murmur being, many who try to place all the blame on Teachers!
      When I was growing up, there was NO doubt in my parent’s mind that I would have far more opportunities (because of education) than what they had ….. as well as the belief of their parents. I don’t hold that same belief for my 2 children who are 30 and 31. That pendulum has now swung in the other direction and may possibly be lodged in place….. for a long time to come!
      My wife and I live far from the rat race now here at the foot of the Andes mountains in Peru. Peru (a developing country) has it’s own issues with a million things (Education being a really big issue). In many ways Peru today is where the US was maybe 150 yrs ago. Peru is largely an agricultural economy … with horrible agricultural practices…….. which ( .. our other arm of TaT addresses. Sorry, that site isn’t up yet!

      Teach a Teacher works with many schools in some of the poorest regions here. We are not trying to change their religion, teach them English or change their culture. We are trying to teach (Teachers) basic teaching skills and provide professional development to help them be better teachers. Period. Many of whom do not have even a teaching certificate but who do try to make a difference and are truly grateful for help. We’re not naive enough to think we can change/save the world, change the importance of education here, or increase job placement at NASA with these people ….. BUT …. we can and are making a difference …. where we can. That change may only come for a few teachers and a few children at a time, but … to quote a person who also contributed to change in many peoples lives “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” Mohandas Gandhi. Help comes in many different forms. If you are able …. we can always use help. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others”? Martin Luther King Jr.


      check us out at

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