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In Chile, a once-extinct language is coming back to life

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A language that was declared to be extinct seven decades ago may be making a return. Ckunsa was the primary language of one of Chile's Indigenous peoples. As John Bartlett reports, today's speakers are making efforts to revive.

ILIA REYES AYMANI: (Singing in Ckunsa).

JOHN BARTLETT, BYLINE: Ilia Reyes Aymani is one of the last remaining speakers of Ckunsa. She sings to keep her language alive.

REYES AYMANI: (Singing in Ckunsa).

BARTLETT: Her Lickanantay people have fought to tame the salt flats, gorges and oases of the Atacama Desert for more than 11,000 years. But since the arrival of the Spanish in the 17th century, they have seen their language and culture slip gradually towards extinction.

REYES AYMANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: Ckunsa was the language spoken around the salt flats in the north of Chile, in southern Peru, and as far as northwestern Argentina. In the 1950s, it was declared extinct, meaning that it was no longer spoken by anybody as a first language. But the tide could be turning.

REYES AYMANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: "Out in the desert, Ckunsa is already being spoken a lot, as well as in schools and community meetings," Reyes Aymani told me. "It was always used in everyday life. Like when they taught us how to sew, they would always do it in Ckunsa, not Spanish."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BARTLETT: Chile has 10 Indigenous groups recognized by law, but one by one, their languages are vanishing. The most recent was the Yagan language, which was spoken by an Indigenous people living in the isolated valleys and fjords of Tierra Del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America. Their language passed away with Cristina Calderon in 2022, the last fluent speaker of Yagan. But up in the Atacama Desert, Ilia Reyes Aymani and her colleagues are fighting back. With little material available with which to teach Ckunsa, Reyes Aymani has written songs to teach children colors and numbers.

(CROSSTALK)

BARTLETT: Other speakers are trying to reintroduce it into schools. Since 2017, any school in Chile with more than 20% of its students hailing from an Indigenous background has been required to teach an Indigenous language.

(CROSSTALK)

BARTLETT: One small primary school in Calama, a dusty mining town in a desert oasis, is teaching Ckunsa to children aged 6 to 11.

MELISSA ARENAS ARAVENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: Melissa Arenas Aravena, the school's principal, says that Ckunsa is given the same weight as any other subject on the curriculum. And she is proud that her students are learning it. The Ckunsa teacher at the school in Calama, Tomas Vilca, lives with his family on a plot of land in Tulor, a small community high above Calama on a sliver of green on the edge of the Atacama salt flaw. The green blades of the maize plants in his paddock cut against one another in the breeze as he trudges along the channels, which help trap what little water there is.

Even here, one of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama Desert, Tomas Vilca and his family are able to make agriculture thrive. They channel water using a series of gates from one small stream into five paddocks where they grow maize, and they even have a greenhouse nearby where they can grow carrots, tomatoes and beetroot. Tomas grew up speaking a mixture of Spanish and Ckunsa. At his rural primary school, teachers worried about his academic progress because he would use Ckunsa words in class which they didn't understand.

TOMAS VILCA: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: "I don't say that we're extinct," Tomas said to me, and we sat down in the shade of a tattered awning. "We're a living people with a living culture. We exist."

Tomas is about to launch an online course for those seeking to learn Ckunsa. He is optimistic that he can help reverse the decay of the language, but recognizes that it will be difficult.

VILCA: (Speaking Spanish).

BARTLETT: "Because I'm not the only one. I'm not alone," he said to me. "There are many more of us, and that gives me strength." Out here on the plains, Ckunsa is very much alive.

CELINA VARAS: (Singing in Ckunsa).

BARTLETT: Every year in October, the men in the towns cleanse the irrigation channels, while the women, like Selina varas, sing songs in Ckunsa in a ritual, known as the Talatur. Now in her 70s, she has participated in the annual ceremony for more than half a century.

VARAS: (Singing in Ckunsa).

BARTLETT: It will be an uphill struggle to revive the language altogether. But the result of the Lickanantay communities is fierce, and Ckunsa will not fade away quiet. For NPR News, I'm John Bartlett in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

VARAS: (Singing in Ckunsa). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Bartlett