ALMA Observatory supports recovery of the Kunza language

29 December, 2011

Atacameño educators completed a series of workdays in San Pedro de Atacama to prepare for the creation of a Kunza teaching manual. The initiative was sponsored by the Ministry of Education and received support from the ALMA Observatory, the largest radio telescope in the world, which is being built in the area.

According to UNESCO, of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken around the world, half will disappear in the coming decades. Even more alarming is that 96% of these languages are spoken by just 4% of the world’s population.

For this reason, in Chile the Bilingual Intercultural Education Program (Programa de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe, or PEIB) of the Ministry of Education is developing an educational project aimed at preserving indigenous languages. The program focuses specifically endangered languages such as Kunza, Yagán and Kawésqar, which are spoken in the Antofagasta and Magallanes regions.

El Loa province and the Atacama la Grande indigenous development area are predominantly inhabited by the Lican Antai or Atacameño people, who are mainly distributed in rural areas and the city of Calama. The Lican Antai is the third-largest indigenous group in Chile, according to the 2002 Census, and represents 3.3% of the total indigenous population.

In October 2010, traditional educators began receiving training in qualitative research techniques so that they can contribute to systematizing linguistic and cultural uses associated with the relevance of the Kunza language in Atacameño or Lican Antai communities. The initiative is the precursor to the future preparation of a “Support Manual for Teaching Kunza in Elementary Schools”.

ALMA, a radio astronomy observatory, has joined this initiative by supporting the logistics for these workdays, which took place over two days per month from October to December 2011. “While ALMA seeks knowledge about the origins of life and of the Universe, indigenous communities are working hard to preserve their own origins and traditions. As a co-resident of this land, ALMA supports the communities’ efforts in education and the recovery and preservation of the local heritage,” said Lewis Ball, ALMA Deputy Director.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), is an international partnership among Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with Chile. ALMA is the largest astronomical project in existence, and consists of a single telescope with a revolutionary design. When completed, it will consist of 66 high-precision antennas located on the Chajnantor Plain in northern Chile at an altitude of 5,000 meters. In late September 2011, ALMA began to scrutinize the mysteries of the Universe with its first antennas. Construction of the program continues today, and is expected to be completed in 2013.