Against linguistic extractivism

Rufino Chuquimamani2

Rufino Chuquimamani – Quechua expert and author, invited comentarista at Monday’s talk

I’ve found myself declaring lately that I am trying to practice an alternative to linguistic extractivism – but what does that mean? I think I coined the term.

According to, extractivism is

“A term of growing use in Latin America academia and social movements to describe economic activities that remove of large amounts of a nation’s natural commons for sale on the world market …”

I personally associate extractivism with the explosion of mining activities that endanger vulnerable communities in the Andes. Resources are taken out of communities in one direction, leaving waste products behind and moving the good stuff for consumption elsewhere. Similarly, linguists and anthropologists are notorious for conducting work that enriches their academic careers but never finds its way back to communities of origin.

An alternative practice is more like traditional agriculture, which is cyclical rather than linear. In this practice, communities themselves take care to return what they have taken from the earth back to where it is needed, with value added.

There are parallels in the practice of linguistic research among indigenous communities. We have a choice to make — are we simply going to mine these communities for what they have to offer linguistic science? Or are we going to take our place as honorary members of the communities when invited, returning results in ways that enrich their identities and allow for more dynamic teaching and use of the native languages?

It has been such a joy and privilege to spend the past six weeks in a phase of returning results. Taking the time to return results offers a break from the pressure off data collection so I can listen more carefully and simply observe what the needs are locally. There will be time soon enough to resume fieldwork, but it’s really enjoyable to see the results savored by people for whom they make a difference.

That was my experience on Sunday and Monday here as I gave talks to teachers and language rights activists in Cusco. There are currently very few viable university connections between local linguists and educators, and the organizations that are carrying out teacher preparation are up to their eyeballs in work. So I hired a pair of private consultants to help me put on two events here. One took place at the Asociación Pukllasunchis, a hub of intercultural education that mostly serves elites in the city but also runs a terrific radio program in the countryside. The other was at a museum run by the Ministry of Culture.

People actually got excited about grammar at these talks! They got excited because they saw for themselves what a complex and intricate mental system their local children have mastered by the time they get to school. Now they’re begging me to come back and offer the talk again in April to the team that helps plan Quechua language teaching content. Glad to see this work come off the bookshelf and into a useful place.

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