Fellow Since 1991
This profile was prepared when Jesús Salinas Pedraza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991.
The New Idea
Indian children typically speak their indigenous tongue in the community, but learn to read and write in Spanish in school. Even with Mexico now encouraging the preservation of indigenous culture, the school curriculum reflects a serious obstacle: most indigenous languages have no standard written form, or even a standard alphabet. Spanish therefore becomes the language of all nonverbal communication, leaving only a very small, and diminishing, role for many millions of Mexicans' mother tongues. Wide distribution of Martin Luther's Bible translation, thanks to the printing press, led to a standardized German; Jesus sees that the latest printing technology can play a similar role for Indian languages. Computers are an extremely useful tool for creating unified alphabets among different dialects, preparing dictionaries, producing texts quickly and inexpensively, and more. At his Workshop in Indian Languages in Oaxaca, Jesus trains representatives of Indian groups to use the computer in these ways so that they may begin recording their language before it becomes extinct. Once a group standardizes its alphabet and grammar, they can begin producing the body of work that will be used to teach reading and writing to their children. This will allow these children to learn to read and write in their native tongue, a far easier and more satisfying exercise than to learn these skills through a foreign language. Most of the new texts will be produced by translating Spanish books into the new written language, but Jesus also has his workshop set up so that anyone in Oaxaca can write original works on the computer, from local histories to family recipes.