When Mariana Chuquin first started going to school in the Ecuadorean Andes, she knew no Spanish. Her parents spoke to her only in Ecuadorian Quichua—indeed, they forbade the use of Spanish at home, although they themselves could speak it—and for a long time she had to guess what her teachers were saying to her. Cesar Augusto Oyagata had a similar experience: he spoke very little Spanish, and when he started school some of his classmates laughed at him because of it. Both of them were young, however, and learned Spanish quickly enough to succeed in school. By learning the indigenous language at home, while speaking the official language at school, the two of them followed a pattern that is quite common in South America: that of the Spanish/Quichuan bilingual.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the indigenous languages of South America—including, among others, the many varieties of Quichua—became less frequently used as Spanish has spread. Although the use of Spanish has always been promoted for official business from the very first colonizations, for a long time it was possible to live in a monolingual Quichuan community. As official schools and governmental institutions became more widespread, however, learning Spanish became unavoidable. Indeed, the use of indigenous languages was frowned upon. When Mariana left her home town to go to school in Otavalo, she discovered first-hand the discrimination faced by any who resisted the use of Spanish—or more generally, the dominant culture. Even when bilinguals grew up speaking Quichua first, the resistance to its use in the larger communities is a significant factor behind the spread of Spanish.

As a result of this competition, Spanish and Quichua have different domains of usage. As Mariana and Augusto discovered, Quichua is primarily a spoken language. When they were children, it was spoken in the home and in the community in unofficial situations, but in any governmental environment—or in any community that was not largely indigenous—Spanish was the dominant language. Today, the situation is largely unchanged in Ecuador. Although there are some local radio broadcasts, there are no daily Quichua newspapers or national media. The Bible and some other religious texts have been translated into Quichua, but there is very little non-religious literature in any language other than Spanish. Quichua is used in the home, increasingly as the language of adults only. Members of the oldest generations might use Quichua dominantly over Spanish, and parents usually speak to each other in Quichua. However, they speak to their children in Spanish, and children likewise speak to each other in Spanish. Thus, even though there are many speakers of Quichua right now, adult Spanish/Quichuan bilinguals are one of the last barriers against a significant decrease in the vitality of Quichua.

That pattern is beginning to change, however. Estimates of the total number of Quichua speakers still range from between 8 million and 12 million (varying according to the government policies and language ideologies that were active during each census). Indigenous organizations, such as the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (CNIE; Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), are concerned that this trend of going from using only Quichua to using only Spanish will lead to the loss or greatly decreased use of Quichua among indigenous communities. For that reason, some countries have started language revitalization programs. Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, have declared Quichua to be national languages. In Bolivia, a 1994 education reform incorporated bilingual intercultural education into the school system. In Ecuador, community-based groups have worked more locally to include Quichua as a language of instruction in schools. The success of these efforts is not yet certain because if Quichua is not used at home, then encouraging its use in school is less effective. However, the changing attitudes towards the Quichuan languages and the increased official acceptance of them removes one of the main threats to the vitality of Quichua. If these revitalization programs succeed, indigenous languages like Quichua can continue to be used daily by the people who have grown up speaking both Spanish and Quichua.

References:

Nancy H. Hornberger and Kendall A. King. “Language Revitalisation in the Andes: Can the Schools Reverse Language Shift?” GSE Publications (1996).
 Available at: http://works.bepress.com/nancy_h_hornberger/5

Camilla Rindstedt and Karin Aronsson. “Growing up Monolingual in a Bilingual Community: The Quichua Revitalization Paradox” Language in Society, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Nov., 2002), pp. 721-742
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4169222