Losing Words: At the Heart of the World, a Language Starts to Lose its Pulse

by Rae Ellen Bichell:

The community of Siekin looks like the Garden of Eden. In Panama in the jungle, the thatch huts that come up off the ground on stilts are surrounded by big, leafy trees with coconuts, cacao and coffee beans, jackfruits, avocados, lemons and oranges, guava, and passion fruit dripping off of them. Toucans and flocks of white herons fly overhead. Pumas prowl the forest. Even the stinkbugs are impressive, with shells of Halloween colors and each at the size of a quarter.

“This is the heart of the world,” said Agustin “Tito” Concepcion Santana, a 47-year-old farmer and teacher who lives in Siekin. When he was a teenager, it took him and his grandfather two days to make the trip from the closest town to their home, pulling their dugout canoe against strong rapids with bamboo poles and often their own bodies.

Rufina Gamarra Santana, the first female queen of the Naso tribe, sits on the banks of the Teribe River in Panama with her granddaughter and son, Agustin “Tito” Concepcion, who helped translate the New Testament into Naso. (Osborn/TYG)

I was there because I wanted to hear something rare and dying—Naso, an endangered language only spoken fluently by about 500 of the 3,500 people worldwide who identify as ethnic Nasos. The language used to be part of a family of languages spoken from Honduras to Colombia, but is now only spoken in isolated pockets of Central America. I arrived at the start of a birthday party.

Entering the house, lifted about five feet off the ground by palm tree trunks and covered in palm leaf thatching, I saw many faces. There was Rufina Gamarra Santana, the former Naso queen. There was Tito’s mother, a handful of aunts and uncles, about a dozen grandkids running around the house, and… Dora the Explorer. The main room was decked out with the popular American cartoon character, who happened to be the star of the six-year-old birthday girl’s favorite television show.

In the United States, the cute Nickelodeon character with a pink T-shirt teaches native English speakers words in Spanish, a Spanish meant to foster pride in being Latina. In each episode, Dora asks her viewers to help her find her way as she wanders through a backdrop of blue mountains and palm trees that look like they’ve been cut from construction paper.

In the Amistad jungle, Dora speaks a different kind of Spanish. There, it’s the language of the invaders. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 17th century, the Naso had been speaking their language for thousands of years. Over the next centuries, Spanish brought more than men in boats searching for gold—they brought diseases that decimated the Naso, missionaries who converted and resettled the tribes, the United Fruit Company factories stamped with the face of Chiquita Banana, and hordes of workers from a variety of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Lately, it’s brought a series of government hydroelectric projects. Each phase of development, always occurring in Spanish, has delivered a major blow to the people and their surroundings—but especially to their language.

Even in Seikin, one of the most isolated of the 12 Naso communities, children not only know who Dora is, but also love her. It may not seem like it, but Spanish and Naso are engaged in an invisible battle of the tongues. The kids running around with the birthday hats on are speaking Spanish. So far, Dora is winning.


We’re used to hearing about animals that are about to die out. From the lynx to the sea turtle, biologists estimate that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100. Languages are dying faster.

Linguists estimate that in the same amount of time, 97 percent of the world’s 6,500 currently existing languages will likely go extinct. A language dies out about every two weeks; in the past few decades alone, Irish Gaelic, Bukhari, Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch have all been placed on the “endangered language” list. UNESCO’s Atlas on Endangered Languages lists about 3,000 as endangered or dying. In a world dominated by dominant tongues like Russian, Chinese, English, and Spanish, the other ones are dropping off of our tongues as they become less and less useful in the business world and on the Internet.

Naso is going quickly. “It’s leaving as fast as a bus that goes 80 kilometers per hour,” said Tito. He and his family are especially worried.

“What would you lose?” I asked.

“Everything,” said Eleuterrio Gamarra, a 67-year-old farmer, Tito’s neighbor. After the birthday party, he and a few others gathered in another thatch roof house to talk. Gamarra is one of about 500 people who speak Naso. When he was a boy, his father and mother did not speak a word of Spanish. Neither did his brothers and sisters. Over the past 50 years, though, Spanish has inched farther and farther into the Amistad jungle, winding its way into the vocabularies of the Naso Teribe communities.

Friends and relatives gather for a birthday party at a home in Siekin, a Naso community on the Teribe River in northwestern Panama. (Osborn/TYG)

Across the room from Gamarra, perched on a bench, sat a Naso girl about 10 years old. She and Gamarra exchanged no words, maybe out of disinterest, but also because communication between the two would be fragmentary at best. Gamarra speaks fluent Naso, intermingled with bits and pieces of Spanish. The girl speaks fluent Spanish, and though she understands Naso, rarely chooses to use it.

“By the time they’re ten and they’re still not speaking it, it’s already too late,” said Joseph Errington, a linguist at Yale. When two generations have lost the ability to communicate, a language is fading. In the case of Naso, it took less than one human lifespan.

According to Tito, there are some things that just don’t translate into Spanish. “With the language you can help tell people how things were before. How were the kings, how were the wars, who were the people. There are customs in a culture, like how men and women interact intimately with each other, and those will be lost because they don’t translate.” Tito said there are some things his mother would only ever speak of in Naso, like when a girl first gets her period. “They say, don’t eat a lot of salt, don’t go in the river, don’t go out of the house for eight days. She’s not going to talk about this in Spanish. She’s going to talk about it in her language and culture.”

Marta de Gerdes, a Panamanian linguist who founded the Center for the Documentation of Minority Languages in Panama, said that a language can function as an emblem for a group. “Language replacement is not simply a matter of putting one language in the place of another; for these groups it has been a matter of having to use the language of another group,” she wrote in an email. She explained that language loss compromises the cultural integrity of an ethnic minority group. “When such replacements take place, in most cases, the language-culture-society link cannot be severed without causing the affected group to lose aspects of its identity, and without the cultural patrimony of mankind forfeiting part of its historical memory.”

Rufina was the first female ruler in the Naso dynasty when she took the throne in the 1980s. She said, “A community without a language is not a community,” said Tito. “The young people want to dye their hair red, yellow, black. They want to put makeup and earrings on and pluck their eyebrows so they look like a little grandmother,” said Tito. Adolfo estimates that only about a fifth of the Naso under age speak the language fluently.


A slew of people have come to Naso communities to record the language, most in order to spread the word of the Bible, and some to work on PhD dissertations.

Most of what is known and described of the Naso language is due to the persistent toil of Christian missionaries, who have come in over the past centuries in small but consistent groups. Tito brought out the Bible translation, which said in gold letters “Sbo Tjlokwo,” or “Word of God” in Naso. “The Bible says I’m from the Tower of Babel, but I know I’m from here,” he said, “I was born here. God left me here. There’s a kingdom of resources, a river. I can tell anyone I’m Naso. The language holds all of this.”

Rufina Gamarra Santana, the first female ruler of the Naso tribe, inspects her granddaughter’s piñata winnings on the banks of the Teribe River. “Teribe” is the Spanish name of the river. The original Naso name Tjër Di, or “Grandmother Water,” the giver of life and guiding spiritual force of the Naso ancestors. (Osborn/TYG)

Even with academic linguists doing language-recording projects all over the world, the Bible remains one of the most powerful tools in preservation—it takes motivation and resources, and Christian missionaries like Andy Keener tend to match that profile well. Keener works for the Summer Language Institute, or SIL International, a Christian nonprofit devoted to language preservation. As of 2009, at least a portion of the Bible had been translated into at least 2,508 different languages. SIL International also publishes Ethnologue, which at 6,909 languages is the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages.

It took Keener and a group of five Naso orthographers 12 years to translate the New Testament and 20 percent of the Old Testament. “Given the size of the project it all happened pretty fast,” he said. “There was an understanding that the language is dwindling downriver, and even in the most isolated communities like Siekin. That made everyone realize that if we didn’t work fast enough, we’d lose it.” Since then, missionaries with another organization have recorded audio versions as well.

Over the course of translating the Bible, Tito decided that he wants to teach his birth language to Naso schoolchildren. Most days he works on growing oranges to sell in town, but Tito said he will come to classrooms and teach Naso if a teacher asks him to. Until he gets certified to teach, though, he won’t ever be paid to do so. Despite a promise to provide bilingual education to Panamanian school children living on reservations, the government has done little to follow through. Even if they did, Keener says in an average year Naso children likely only go to school 80 days out of the year.

The hydroelectric project might be the nail in the coffin. “The current king isn’t interested in the language,” said Tito, “He’s interested only in the hydroelectric dam.” However you look at it, a fractured community can’t keep a dying language breathing, and certainly not if the very figurehead of Naso culture is not interested in it.


Spanish is winning.

“That’s the language that kids want to learn because. It’s bound up in the image of the city, which for kids in the rural peripheries is so attractive. They have televisions and radios, so that gives them this little window into the larger world,” said Errington. Even Tito, who is the most gung-ho about the Naso language from within the community, doesn’t speak Spanish to his young daughters. Keener said that’s pretty common. “They think that if they don’t insist that their children speak Spanish, they won’t. They see it as a way up. If you speak Spanish, you do have more opportunities.” Ultimately, it all comes back to the kids. “Something happens,” said Errington, “It’s something in the heads of those kids. It’s not just a matter of the political, economic, or demographic stuff. Ultimately it has to be something about heads and hearts.” What’s in the hearts of those kids? It might be Dora. I think back to the birthday party, with the dozen kids running around, wearing Dora the Explorer birthday hats. I’m not sure what exactly is in their hearts, but I do know what was in their hands: a baseball bat. With the sounds of the jungle rain pouring down outside, they used it to beat a Dora the Explorer piñata to shreds.

Rae Ellen Bichell ’12 is an Anthropology major in Davenport College. Contact her at raeellen.bichell@yale.edu.