Crafting Quechua Language Education in an Urban High School

A Case from The Peruvian Andes

By Frances Kvietok Dueñas

English class is super-cool, 15-year-old bilingual student, Ricardo, told me. Not so much Quechua, an indigenous language offered at his public high school in a valley town of Cuzco, Peru. At the end of the school year, Ricardo was no longer bored in his Quechua class. He had dubbed a clip of one of his favorite movies into Quechua and would soon start working on his digital autobiography. It all started when I stumbled on the ‘Hakuna Matata’ video from the Lion King dubbed into Quechua by Cuzco video artist Fernando Valencia. But more on that later.

Looking back at his experience learning Quechua in school, Ricardo told me, “O sea, en inglés es súper divertido … y en cambio en quechua, como que, es como que pasas a una tienda encuentras todo y aquí no encuentras nada”. (I mean, English [class] is super fun ...and instead in Quechua, like, it’s like you go into a store and you find everything and here you don’t find anything).            

Part of what made English class super-cool according to Ricardo is that it equaled a well-stocked store. This should not be a surprise. As is the case for many of Peru’s 46 other indigenous languages, the status and the resources available for the Quechua course at his high school were starkly different from its English counterpart. 

I was spending two years (2016-2017) in the Cuzco region as an ethnographer doing my doctoral dissertation. I sat in classrooms and observed teaching methodologies and learning materials were quite different in English and Quechua language classes. I noticed how Quechua was often taught as bits of the language—a can of grammar, a sack of vocabulary words and a bunch of writing rules to be memorized or practiced in unconnected sentences—rather than as a meaningful resource for communication, learning and identity development.

A typical Quechua lesson

Marcelina Salas, Ricardo’s Quechua teacher, and I began to reimagine the Quechua course offered at his school. An experienced and passionate Quechua-language educator, Marcelina was well aware of the course’s challenging conditions. In Peru, intercultural bilingual education, a national policy since 1991, seeks to incorporate indigenous languages and cultures in schooling but has remained targeted to rural-dwelling monolingual students, ignoring the needs of urban-based, bilingual students. Indigenous language education in urban schools and at the secondary level is virtually non-existent in national policy and programs, and thus, initiatives like that of Marcelina require great personal and institutional commitment in the face of a lack of teacher education programs, relevant curriculum and teaching materials. 

Our initial conversations, usually revolved around Marcelina’s ongoing concern of her students’ silence in class and my growing understanding of the diversity of her students’ bilingualism. While most Quechua language education experiences and Peru and the Andes have been directed at students who have Quechua as their first language, grow up in rural areas and study in primary schools, the youth in Marcelina’s classrooms had a broader range of language learning trajectories. Some spoke Quechua as their main language of home socialization, but many more had grown up in bilingual homes or only exposed to Spanish, and for some Quechua was their heritage language. What is more, many youth had grown up, studied and currently lived in between rural and urban spaces. Following national trends, speakers of indigenous languages in Peru have increasingly migrated and taken up residence in urban centers over the past several decades. Some estimates point that close to half of Peru’s Quechua speaking population now lives in cities and towns.

Marcelina and I kicked off our collaboration by conducting a survey with her students (202 high schoolers). In response to some of the open-ended questions, youth reported experiencing the specter of everyday linguistic discrimination inside and outside schools, dissatisfaction with traditional language pedagogies and demands for more dynamic, technology-friendly and oral-centered pedagogies. Together, the results reflected how youth experienced ongoing coloniality in the region and their desires for communicative language learning experiences. The results of some of the questions of our survey can be seen below in the form of word clouds (the bigger the font size, the more frequent the response):

Question: “¿Por qué piensas que algunas personas se avergüenzan de hablar quechua?” (Why do you think some people are embarrased to speak Quechua?)

Question: “¿De qué forma te gustaría aprender quechua?” (How would you like to learn Quechua?)

As Marcelina and I reflected on how we wanted the Quechua course to respond to youth’s demands, I stumbled upon a rendering of the Lion King’s trademark song, “Hakuna Matata,” which sounded strangely familiar. What I saw and heard was Timon, Pumbaa and Simba sing along in Quechua (if you have not seen it, check it out). Fernando Valencia, the talented Cuzco artist behind the video, has big plans to dub the entire film. Soon after my YouTube discovery, I shared it with Marcelina. None of us quite imagined we’d spend the rest of the school year working with students dubbing their own video clips into Quechua.

Youth in Marcelina’s class produced more than a hundred dubbed video clips of movies like Inside/Out and Finding Nemo, anime and the popular Mexican “El Chavo del Ocho” shows. In groups, youth selected a video clip of their choice, transcribed the script in Spanish, worked on a Quechua translation, recorded the dubbed dialogue and worked on editing the video and audio. Although I describe the steps in a somewhat linear fashion, the students didn’t experience it this way. The process was messy—translation was not about searching for equivalents but interpreting and transmitting the message behind the multimodal production they had selected, using Quechua and Spanish, and many times a bit of both. 

Dubbing characters entailed not only uncloaking oral abilities in Quechua that had been looked down upon or not given a space in Quechua classrooms, but also displaying verbal artistry. This meant not dubbing Nemo from Spanish to Quechua but in fact, being Nemo in Quechua. Much of this work was collective. The students debated whether Quechua terms or bilingual Spanish-Quechua terms would best transmit their message, consulted dictionaries, their grandmothers, relatives and school staff to gather consensus from their bilingual community. Decisions were also made across the window panes of the editing software they used—how to best match gestures with the recorded audio? Would they decide to add captions and subtitles? And what should they do with the special sound effects found in the original clips? Throughout, groups worked on collaborative learning skills, kept up with classroom assignments and presented drafts of their work to Marcelina and the class.


Some screenshots of youth’s video productions

Often for the first time, Salas and I heard youth speaking in Quechua in class. They were not just talking about the grammar and writing of the language but about their role as speakers, artists and authors of their own multimodal creations. This positioning was in stark contrast to their roles as scribes or animators of teacher dictation exercises and questions. Reflecting about their project experience, many students said they enjoyed the opportunity to develop speaking abilities in Quechua, often overlooked in the course. 

Pedro, a high school junior with limited Quechua speaking ability, told us, “cuando yo me escuché hablar en quechua, en mi video, no sé porque un poquito me emocioné, porque hablar en quechua es algo difícil, pero cuando escuché mi voz diciendo todas las palabras en quechua, me emocioné” (‘when I heard myself speaking in Quechua, in my video, I don’t know why but I got a bit excited, because speaking in Quechua is somewhat difficult, but when I heard my voice saying all those words in Quechua, I got excited’). At times intimidated by more proficient peers or disengaged because of writing-heavy instruction, youth like Pedro often remained silent in class and had little opportunities to use the language orally. This was a shame, as for many speaking in Quechua was the ability they coveted the most, an ability that would allow them to participate in home and community bilingual interactions and which many felt would give them an advantage in their future jobs—be it as doctors, tour guides or engineers. 

While creating their dubbed video clips certainly allowed students to find and develop a voice in Quechua, they also were using and developing Quechua writing skills. Literacy in Quechua, one of Marcelina’s main goals as a teacher, was developed not as an end in itself, but as a practice with a communicative purpose. 

Youth working on their scripts during class

Youth also recognized how digital media provided more incentives to use and learn Quechua in unforeseen ways. Working with video destabilized representations of Quechua as incompatible with technology. One youth, for example, described his initial reaction to the task as, “Era como un shock usar la tecnología para hacer un trabajo en quechua, era algo raro” (‘It was like a shock to use technology to work on a Quechua assignment, it was strange’). Incorporating digital tools in the Quechua language classrooms was one way in which we challenged hurtful stereotypes of indigenous languages as at odds with modernity, while also promoting Indigenous language oral and literacy practices closer to youth’s everyday multimodal experiences. 

As youth began screening their clips to the class, Marcelina and I were happy to learn about different ways in which youth’s family members became involved in the project, an unplanned outcome. Some parents took on the roles of fellow screen characters, as was the case of a mother who vividly impersonated the queen mother of Princess Merida (a character in the Disney movie Brave), while other relatives served as language consultants. The role of family members as agents of Quechua language socialization and partners of school learning became even more important as Marcelina and I continued to expand our collaboration in the following year.

Reflecting on the culmination of our first collaboration, we felt it was important to create a project in which the content focused on youth’s own language learning experiences and that of their families. In the 2017 school year, we introduced a new assignment were youth made use of personal and family photographs along oral narrations to create a digital storytelling of their linguistic autobiographies. The project included developing a timeline of one’s life, narrating how one had learned or not learn different languages, including Quechua, the language learning history of one’s family, as well as one’s aspirations and expectations. Unlike the previous projects, this task was done individually.

In addition to continuing developing digital skills, oral and written Quechua abilities, students’ involvement provided an opportunity to learn about youth’s complex and multiple language learning trajectories. In a school context with no formal Quechua language evaluations, where few youth were actually requested to speak Quechua inside and outside of Quechua class, teachers often struggled to get to know what students knew about Quechua and what they could do in the language. 

Throughout my observations in the school and around town, I noticed how young people continually received commentaries which questioned and discredited their allegiance and proficiency in Quechua. Adults, and sometimes their peers, claimed youth were not interested or did not care about the Quechua language or the school Quechua course, arguing that these young people had no identity, felt embarrassed about their own families, or were instead more interested in foreign languages like English. 

During the screening of the autobiographies, many narratives gave testament to the experiences of those who grew up as bilinguals who could understand but not necessarily speak Quechua. This was the case of Jason. In his video, he comically narrated how as a child he learned Quechua by overhearing his mom and aunt’s conversations, which they purposefully held in Quechua when they wanted to keep important information away from him, like their nighttime escapades. Another case was that of Milagros, who shared her frustration feeling like a “gringa” in her own neighborhood. Milagros could not speak nor understand Quechua when adults addressed her in Quechua, even though her parents spoke the language. And in some fewer cases, we learned about youth who still communicated mainly in Quechua with their monolingual parents and relatives, kept ties to their rural hometowns, participated in traditional cultural practices, but hid their linguistic and cultural identities in school and town as acts of self-defense. 

Crafting spaces for reimagining Quechua language education was not without challenges. The experience I’ve described relied heavily on Marcelina’s commitment to reflect on her own teaching practice and take action to change them. She was interested in listening to her students’ demands and interests. She did not act alone, but received the support of the school administration to exert her autonomy as a language educator and reinvent the curriculum, as well as the support of  local video artist Fernando Valencia, who visited her classrooms and gave a workshop on video-dubbing techniques. 

Among the challenges we had to negotiate was the limited amount of time available for the Quechua course, with only 45 minutes a week. Developing digital technology projects in a school with limited computer and software resources proved difficult at first, though the use of free online software and student work at public internet cabins helped us overcome this obstacle. And as all praxis-driven educational projects, more questions emerged for Marcelina and I to be explored in the future—how to best incorporate and teach about Andean knowledge and cosmovision in the Quechua language course? What could be ways to support youth’s positive identifications with a Quechua linguistic and cultural identity? How could the promotion of bilingualism transcend the Quechua course and become part of the broader school curriculum?

There are many deep-seated societal and local forces which work against indigenous language education in the Andes and around the world. The experience I have shared, however, joins efforts which build on bottom-up language education practices, collaborative research and take seriously learners’ hopes and aspirations to reimagine Indigenous language education. I invite you to learn more about our collaboration and youth’s creations by visiting this short video. 


Frances Kvietok Dueñas is a Peruvian educational linguist (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania). Her dissertation, “Youth bilingualism, identity and Quechua language planning and policy in the urban Peruvian Andes,” won the 2019 Frederick Erickson Outstanding Dissertation Award. She teaches and researches bilingual education and language policy using ethnographic and collaborative methodologies. 


Frances Kvietok Dueñas' short presentation on her work during the ReVista billingualism colloquium.