Teaching Summary: Reclaiming our Languages

Nina Beriss

Are you interested in Indigenous language activism? Would you like to teach students about how Zapotec educators and activists use historical documentation on their language to reclaim word knowledge?

Overview: This module was written specifically for Zapotec speakers or people learning an Indigenous language, though all students can benefit from reading it. In this lesson, Dr. Felipe H. Lopez presents some ways he has used resources on the Ticha Project to recover and reclaim Zapotec words. The chapter also discusses consequences of the loss of Indigenous languages and the reclamation of documents by Indigenous people. Students may wish to follow this lesson with the Numbers chapter.

Grade Level Recommendations: Any grade level.

Courses and Units:  This module is appropriate for courses including global studies, Latin American studies, Indigenous studies, and linguistics.

Time: This module can be taught in approximately 1.5 – 2 hours.

Major Points (by section):

  • According to Mexico’s 2020 census, 6.1% of the population speak an Indigenous language, with Zapotec speakers comprising about 400,000 of this. Despite a law enacted in 2003 to protect Indigenous linguistic rights, this number has continued to decrease – some reasons for this are discussed in the Language Shift chapter. Some speakers of Indigenous languages, like Lopez, have taken initiatives to strengthen their languages through methods that involve digitization projects like Ticha.
  • Conversatorios (or workshops) have been held to create spaces for Zapotec people from many communities to discuss historical documents, work to recover knowledge, and collaborate to preserve Zapotec. For Lopez, compiling Zapotec words that few people know has been a significant part of his decades-long project to preserve his language; Ticha has been an important reference as he has used available colonial-era documents to compare versions of words, like those used for counting.
  • Although Zapotec is still being passed down to younger generations, many Zapotec communities are suffering language loss and language shift. In his work against the impacts of language shift, Lopez works with Ticha to verify the definitions of words, and with the aid of Conversatorios, learned other words he believed to no longer be in use.
  • Lopez also used Ticha for understanding ritual ceremonial speech – a type of loban called dizhdo, delivered by a bezgual – used in his community since at least 1578. After meeting with his community’s bezgual and transcribing/recording his speech, he used digitized colonial documents to clarify word meanings and pronunciations. Lopez encourages Zapotec people to use such documents (which have historically been kept from their possession) to recuperate knowledge, understand history, and reclaim their language.

Guiding Questions (by section):

  • What can we learn from the Ticha Project as Zapotec speakers?: Think of a word that you use every day and try to find its meaning on Ticha – did you find it, what were the challenges you faced, and did you learn anything in this process? In your community, are people still using your native language for counting, and if counting knowledge is being lost in your community, is there a way to get it back? Are there any words that you remember your grandparents or other older people using? Do you know of any historical documents written in your language, and do you know how to access them?
  • Knowledge encoded in language: Have you learned some words in your language that have meanings that you did not know, and what resources or people have you consulted to help you understand their meaning? Are there any concepts or ideas that you think do not exist in your language?


  • Language shift: a process in which a community of speakers shifts from speaking some language to speaking a different language, usually taking place over several generations

Before teaching this unit: 

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