SANTA CRUZ DE MARA, Venezuela – Jesús González, a 15-year-old indigenous Wayuu boy, loves computers and is loyal to his culture.
González, who attends a bilingual school in this small town in the state of Zulía, now has a modern resource to bridge the gap between his ancestral culture and his passion for technology.
He’s learned that in his native Wayuu language, Wayuunaiki, the term for the “@” symbol, used to send emails, is “aroowa.”
Online chatting, another of his hobbies is called “achatiaajaa,” and his computer’s hardware also has its own terms in Wayuunaiki: a printer is “achikanainjia” and the keyboard is “ajüttiaapala.”
González was able to learn these and other words in his native language thanks to the Pütchimaajatü komputatoorachiki wayuunaikiru’usu (The Wayuunaiki Dictionary of Computing), an initiative by Microsoft of Venezuela together with the Wayuu Taya Foundation.
The dictionary’s words were created using terminology development, a branch of linguistics dealing with the creation of terms for different areas of knowledge.
The dictionary was introduced to the Wayuu community at an event at “Tepichi Talashi” (Happy child, in Wayuu), a rural, bilingual school outside Santa Cruz de Mara, 15 kilometers (10 miles) north of Maracaibo, on Dec. 5.
“Now, it will be easier for me to further understand the computer,” said González, who was at the event. “I can find all the terms I need to know in [the dictionary].”
The dictionary, which will be distributed free to bilingual schools and other educational institutions, is an effort to increase the presence of the Wayuu people in the educational system, so that they can write in their own language and use the latest technologies.
Gerardo Antoni, director of the Public Sector, Education, Health and Citizenship for Microsoft of Venezuela, said the creation of this dictionary is part of Microsoft’s global policy “that seeks to preserve cultural identity through initiatives that help Local Language Programs.”
In association with governments, universities and local language experts, Microsoft’s Local Language Programs are aimed at finding ways to create local economic opportunities, develop personalized information technology solutions and preserve local languages and cultures, Antoni said.
The Wayuus comprise one of the main indigenous groups in Venezuela and Colombia, in the extreme north of South America. Their language, Wayuunaiki, is part of the Arawak language family, spoken by about 500,000, a fact that caught Microsoft’s attention.
“The impact is measured in terms of the number of people who will benefit from this initiative,” Antoni said. “In that sense, the Wayuu ethnic group is the most populous, and it is present not just in Venezuela, but in Colombia as well.”
At first, the dictionary will be available only in print. “However, eventually it will be available digitally – first in schools, universities and selected communities, [and later] to everyone,” Antoni said.
One of the greatest challenges was choosing, and agreeing upon, the terminology that would comprise the dictionary’s more than 2,000 computing terms in Wayuunaiki.
Dr. José Álvarez, a renowned linguist and specialist in indigenous languages who led the translating team, said the dictionary is necessary to adapt this ancestral language to the modern world.
“The Wayuu people cannot limit themselves to just using Wayuunaiki to describe their immediate surroundings,” said Álvarez, whose translation team included linguists Nuris Ballestero, José Ángel Fernández, Oberto Palmar, Neida Paz, Jorge Pocaterra and Abel Silva. “If that happens, the language will be increasingly boxed into a corner by Spanish. In order to counteract that tendency, there is an urgent need for development of a vocabulary, an expanded lexicon that allows modern Wayuu people to communicate in their native language about the multiple new realities in which they take part.”
Renowned Venezuelan actress and model Patricia Velásquez, president of the Wayuu Taya Foundation, emphasized the project will have a major impact on the community.
“We need to preserve the Wayuu language, and that’s our focus,” Velásquez said. “The work being done is so wonderful, since it allows us to preserve this language and further expand it. It’s a contribution from the Wayuu people to the world. And this is just the beginning of the project.”
Hope for the future
This dictionary is not just for the benefit of individuals but also for teaching information technology in the classroom, specifically to bilingual students, and preparing teaching materials.
“We’ve spent years waiting for material that would allow us to go beyond what was being taught in indigenous languages – in this case, Wayuunaiki – given that we didn’t have a tool that would allow us to use terms to teach about computers and technology for use in schools,” said Thawanui Guillén, coordinator of the Department of Intercultural Bilingual Education for the Zulía State Department of Education.
José’s mother, Juana González, said the dictionary is more than a tool to support her son’s passion for computers.
“My son loves computers, and I think that this dictionary will be very useful,” said González, 52. “I think it’s great that they’re doing this type of thing. It enriches the education of our community.”