A New York Woman’s Quest to Preserve Quechua

Quechua is the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in South America. However, in a world where Spanish predominates, it is extremely vulnerable.

Quechua is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken by 8 to 10 million people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It was the language of the old Incan Empire. 8 to 10 million people may seem like a lot, but that’s for all languages in the family, and a glance at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that even the healthiest Quechua languages are “vulnerable,”  and several are already extinct.

Quechua’s prestige began to decline during the late 18th century, when the Spanish banned it from public use after an indigenous rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.  Although Quechua is now an official language in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,  it never really recovered. Bruce Mannheim, an anthropology professor  at the University of Michigan, described its current status to the Wall Street Journal:

“Quechua speakers in urban areas make sure their children speak Spanish,” he said. “And their grandchildren only speak Spanish.…Among the different languages, there are a number of them that are threatened with extinction within this generation.”

However, an initiative to preserve the language is coming from an unlikely place: the kitchen table of a 73-year old Brooklyn grandmother.

Elva Ambía grew up speaking Quechua during her childhood in Peru. In 2012, she founded the New York Quechua Initiative to promote the language through musical and cultural events, educational programs and Quechua classes held in Ms. Ambia’s home.  The group has also donated a collection of books about Quechua to the Brooklyn library.

Ms. Ambia told the Wall Street Journal she is confident the language will survive:

“I do not believe Quechua is dying. I cannot accept that. If I am alive, I am going to make it alive.”

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Cédric Liénart

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