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Revista chilena de pediatría

versión impresa ISSN 0370-4106

Rev. chil. pediatr. vol.91 no.1 Santiago feb. 2020  Epub 22-Ene-2020 


Teaching practices and beliefs and language stimulation from the Mapuche Culture in rural children in the Araucanía Region

Francisca Fernández Gutiérrez1  3 

Ana María Alarcón Muñoz2  3 

1 Faculty of Nursing. Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile.

2 Public Health Department. centre of Health and research based on Evidence (cIGES). Universidad de La Frontera, Chile.

3 Nurse, Chile.



Language is one of the most relevant cognitive tasks in child development and its acquisition is me diated, among others, by ethnic and cultural factors.


To characterize the practices and be liefs about language teaching and stimulation strategies of rural Mapuche Children aged between 0 to 4 years from an intracultural perspective.

Subjects and Method:

Qualitative study based on Groun ded Theory, which generates an understanding of the study issue from the perceptions of the research subjects. Ethnographic techniques such as observation and field notes were used, and 20 in-depth in terviews and four focus groups were conducted with caregivers (mothers, fathers, and grandparents), intercultural teachers and people with cultural roles (longkos, machis, and intercultural facilitators). 41 Mapuche people from the Ercilla, Curarrehue, Puerto Saavedra, Cholchol and Boroa territories of the Araucanía region, Chile participated.


Four dimensions were obtained that characte rized the practices and beliefs regarding the acquisition and use of language in Mapuche children: a) Mapuche culture transcends through children and language, b) speech is a concrete and pragmatic process, c) there are traditional techniques for speech stimulation, and d) there are difficulties and easiness for the development of the indigenous language in young children.


The preser vation and recovery of the indigenous language is a process of reinforcing the cultural identity for the Mapuche people, which has not been valued as a cultural heritage in the national society.

Keywords: Infant; Child; Preschooler; Language Development; ethnic group


In recent years, the need for focusing on reduc ing social inequalities and on vulnerable groups has strongly emerged within public policies. Therefore, better child protection is a strategy for addressing inequities and narrowing human development gaps1.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) recognizes indigenous children as a vulnerable group within national soci eties and states that these children should be a tar get and concern of governments in Latin America3. In Chile, the region of La Araucanía has a high level of rurality, spread population, and inter-ethnic con flicts, which puts Mapuche children at risk or vulnerability for their full and potential development. There are approximately 65,000 children aged between 0 and 4 years in the region, 36% of them be long to the Mapuche ethnic group and 27.7% live in rural areas of La Araucanía, specifically in indigenous communities.

Different studies point out the importance of cultural protective factors as elements that contrib ute to care of children at risk4,5. In Chile, studies on raising Mapuche children show a dynamic transition between tradition and change, with a significant loss of cultural patterns of stimulation and raising6,7. Cultural parenting processes generate developmen tal monitoring strategies that encourage children to meet their basic needs for autonomy and belonging, thus making culture a protection factor of child development8,9,10.

Moreover, language is recognized as one of the most relevant cognitive abilities or skills in the psychomotor development of children and its stimulation triggers highly complex socio-cognitive processes11. However, an exclusively biopsychosocial perspective on language stimulation and use do not consider the possible social contributions of indigenous culture in the language skills building.

Therefore, the objectives of this study are to rec ognize, from an intracultural perspective, the importance, practices, and beliefs surrounding language use and learning of rural Mapuche children aged be tween 0 and 4 years. Also, to describe how Mapuche children learn the indigenous language and how it is used from the perspective of their caregivers, teach ers, and people with ancestral cultural roles, in areas with high concentrations of indigenous people in La Araucania region and, in addition, to recognize the cultural forms for the use and stimulation of the Ma puche language (Mapudungun) within the rural com munities of La Araucanía, and to promote processes of cultural relevance that support the families of the region.

Subjects and Method

Qualitative study based on grounded theory. This theoretical-methodological approach makes it pos sible, through constant comparison and contrasting of data (interview and focus group transcriptions), to generate an emerging theory of the study topic based on the repetitive reading of the study subjects’ narra tives12. The methodological strategy of the grounded theory is an iterative logic between the narrative data and its analysis, which is carried out through coding processes.

Study participants were caregivers (parents, grand parents), bilingual intercultural teachers, intercultural counselors, and traditional Mapuche community agents such as machi (ancestral therapist) and longko (community chief or guide). The final sample included 41 participants, divided into 20 interviewees and 21 participants in four focus groups (Table 1).

Table 1 Sample distribution by territory and data collection. 

Data collection was conducted through in-depth interviews and focus groups using a guideline of six questions or topics that addressed the study objec tives. These techniques allow flexibility in the answer of the participants by deepening their individual and personal experiences. Twenty interviews and four focus groups were conducted with five to six people partici pating in each group. Ethnographic techniques such as observation of family dynamics and field notes were used that contributed to data triangulation.

The study locations represent the three geo-so cio-territorial zones of La Araucania which include lafquenche (coast), nagche (valley), and pehuenche (mountain chain). As a starting point for the selection of places and participants, the rural health centers with the largest Mapuche population and children under 4 years of age were identified in each territory, and then the intercultural counselor of each center was contact ed, who facilitated contact with families, schools, and traditional community agents.

Inductive data analysis was carried out by repeating the reading of the narratives (interview transcripts, fo cus groups, observation records, and field notes). The data were segmented into units of meaning that were coded textually and conceptually. A list of codes was created and then grouped into similar units of mean ing or conceptual dimensions, which summarized the findings of the study. Four dimensions (with their re spective codes) were identified which exemplified the way in which the individuals of the study interpreted and represented the use of the indigenous language in Mapuche children.

The findings’ validity was consistent with the qualitative paradigm through the triangulation of information sources, data collection techniques, and in dependent analysis (data were analyzed by several re searchers). The adherence to scientific rigor was based on theoretical and methodological coherence, adher ence to data through their representation in vignettes, and external evaluation of their design and results.

The study was approved by the scientific ethics committee of the Universidad de La Frontera, and par ticipants signed an informed consent form that en sured the confidentiality of their identities.


Four dimensions were identified that characterize the practices and beliefs regarding the language use and stimulation in the Mapuche child population:

1. Children and language learning represent the con tinuity over time of Mapuche identity.

2. Speech is a concrete and pragmatic process.

3. Traditional techniques for speech stimulation.

4. The ease and difficulties of teaching Mapudungun.

1. Children and language learning represent the continuity over time of Mapuche identity

Mapuche children represent the continuity of so ciety and culture. They are responsible for maintain ing and continuing ‘being Mapuche’ in today’s society. This responsibility is more relevant by understanding that the child represents the future and the language. The child is a subject under construction and forma tion and, therefore, a culturally relevant raising will al low the transfer of practices, beliefs, and language from generation to generation, in order to last the Mapuche life.

“Without our children, our people disappear. That’s why we insist that our children learn to speak our language again because then we’ll continue to grow as what we are” (Ñaña, Puerto Saavedra).

The importance of language is appreciated as a way of preserving Mapuche culture, knowledge, and wis dom. In addition, it is noted that children are freer in the countryside, so they learn to be independent and free, and that, from a young age, children are taught to che (be) a person of integrity in the Mapuche language.

“We raise... (the child) has to be kimche, norche, zakinche, all that has to be. (The child) has to be a good, loving, and affectionate person, all that. So all that one’s saying to her/him from that age since the child was a little girl/boy in the countryside. To be free in the countryside, more freedom, more autonomy ” (Ñaña, Puerto Domín guez).

“The thing is that through speech we can preserve what’s ours, that the people are people. If we lose our speech, we lose our kimün and rakizuam, we lose our horizon, so as long as it remains, we’ll continue to be Mapuche”. (An cestral agent, Ercilla).

2. Speech is a concrete and pragmatic process

We speak when something must be said. Speech is a communicative, coherent, and meaningful act. Otherwise, children only need to observe attentively and silently, a quality that is taught from a very early age.

“The child speaks when necessary... not for any reason... (the child) must speak when she/he has to (... ) what she/ he says is understood and speaks loudly... (she/he has to say) coherent things and must make sense”. (ELCI, Puer to Saavedra).

“Children have to be attentive, looking... seeing every thing... they have to be quiet to understand everything. First, observe, don’t interrupt... and speak when asked”. (Cultural Counselor, Ercilla).

It is said that every child has a different pace of lan guage learning. This will depend on their maturity or the family they live with. If the language does not ap pear at an early age, it is not seen as a problem because every child has his or her own pace.

“I feel that it’s wrong, in the sense that we divide, sepa rate, go in stages, it’s that such stage has to have this or that ability. But those stages or skills will develop depend ing on the context where the child is getting along. It’s a whole process that we can’t rush, that if you don’t comply with this, (the child) is a little delayed... it’s frowned on”. (Ancestral agent, Temucuicui, Ercilla).

“There is an age when they say: I already speak, I speak, I’m a speaker, I speak and I communicate (...) at the age of twelve or so because here all the children say at that age ‘I am Mapuche’”. (Ñaña, Puerto Saavedra).

3. Traditional techniques for speech stimulation

The water that flows appears as a contribution to the discursive capacity. Drinking cold water gives vigor, strength, and fluency to the language.

“Drinking water in the morning, three drinks and we had to drink that water pretty early, and it was pretty early in the morning and it was very good to be clear to speak, very clear (...) drinking water from the spring helps to speak loud and clear”. (Mother, Boroa).

There are also some practices that help children talk when they notice problems such as saliva drop or disfluency.

“The bird helps to communicate; a hen or the dog’s sa liva helps to keep the child from dropping her/his saliva.” (Ñaña, Curarrehue).

One stimulation mechanism is the active obser vation and imitation of sounds. In various accounts, the observation of gestures and conversations is men tioned as an active mechanism for the stimulation of speech, where the use of kupulwe (wooden frame to put babies upright), allows the child to observe the dialogical context of the Mapuche communicative act.

“If you listen permanently, you listen and listen, you’re going to learn, but now our contexts of life have changed. When putting the little baby in the kupulwe, and the baby’s standing, she/he looked at your mouth, and now, they put the baby in a crib that doesn’t allow her/him to see anything, she/he only listens to you, she/he’s look ing at the ceiling, then is something different in this other position, the baby doesn’t see how they gesticulate”. (Cul tural counselor, Ercilla).

“For example, when my dad and I went out to look for firewood or to the mountains, and my dad said listen, and it was the sound of water (shhhhh) (...) or when the treile (southern lapwing) appeared, trugül, trugül, it is very concrete and he made us listen to the little birds, you see the little bird and learn. First, they were telling you why, in the end, the Mapuche language comes all from nature”. (Intercultural Counselor, Ercilla).

The triad “see, feel, do or practice” is when the child observes the situation, feel the sound, and see how it is articulated, she/he relates it and perform the concrete action to which she/he was exposed. Such action may be delayed, not being carried out at the first attempt, a situation that describes language learning as a persua sive and comprehensive process.

“Listening, seeing, and doing. If you only listen to it, you won’t understand, the same happens if you only see it. That’s what happens with the sheets of pigs and that’s why you have to be concrete and visual because through the images and what you’re looking at, you’ll learn, and in a real context, not an imaginary one (...) it’s essential, that’s the way teaching should be, but it can’t be done, and if there are these spaces in the school, you have to take advantage of them, you have to do it”. (Ancestral agent, Saavedra).

“Back to the concrete, it’s that, you always have to have all three, listening, seeing, and doing.” (Ancestral agent, Boroa).

Stories, tales, and advice are practices associated with stimulating orality and understanding of cultural values. The stories are teachings, they tell the history of the territories, the life of the ancestors, and the func tion of nature.

“From the culture, grandparents are who teach, more than the parents. The grandparents are always present, through games, epew (stories), through piam (fables), children are taught how to grow and how to be a person”. (Caregiver, Cholchol).

Mapuche singing is also used to stimulate speech. In the dialogical and rhythmic, children observe gestic ulation, intonation, articulation of sounds, and idioms of the culture.

“For example, if I sing her/him ülkantun (Mapuche singing) she/he learns it very easily, more than if I teach her/him phrases. The ülkantun is very, very important. I hope that from a very young age we’ll start doing the ülkantun, every day... While we cook, while we change diapers, while we’re bathing her/him...” (Caregiver, Sa avedra).

4. The ease and difficulties of teaching Mapudungun

The loss of the ancestral language is recognized as one of the main difficulties in teaching it to children. Earli er generations (grandparents and great-grandparents) lived through war, persecution, and reduction, where the Mapuche was stigmatized as delayed13. This histori cal experience has been passively passed on to those who are now forming a fourth or fifth family genera tion.

“There’s a loss of language...of chezungun (...) there’s like a generation that doesn’t know how to speak and even less can teach (...) I suffered a lot of discrimination in school due to not knowing Spanish, the teachers (...) the children laughed”. (Agent, Ercilla).

“Our people ended up with very low self-esteem and it’s present in all the Mapuche people, you’re part of a peo ple that was submitted. But the youngsters don’t believe that”. (Caretaker, Curarrehue).

Not all those interviewed had had a concrete expe rience of Mapudungun in their early childhood, which has made it difficult to teach it to the younger genera tion.

“I think there’s no one to teach them, they know the ba sics only, there’s no one to speak to them all in the native language. I ask the teacher how to say bull, pig, rooster, but there’re things they don’t know, they don’t know ev erything”. (Caregiver, Curarrehue)

“I was discriminated in school for not knowing how to speak Chilean, hence I didn’t teach my children. Now I’m getting it back, I’m teaching them because there have been changes too”. (Agent, Ercilla).

A facilitating element in the teaching of Mapudungun is that the children live in an extended family.

“The big family (...) all sitting at the table (...) or visiting the relatives who live here, there the children get around (...) they’re already talking to them and they’re recog nizing their family and how to say things in Mapuche”. (Mother, Cholchol).

In some territories, young parents with high formal education, as well as social leaders, have emphasized the Mapuche identity of their children since birth, per forming some ceremonies before birth, selecting Ma puche names for their children, and teaching them words and songs in Mapudungun.

“I name my daughters in Mapudungun because I wasn’t named like that. My name is (...), my parents didn’t teach me Mapudungun, I don’t know why I went to a Catholic school so I don’t want to repeat the same thing with my daughters, I want them to feel proud of being Mapuche, to learn their language” (Mother, Ercilla).

“At home, we have music and instruments, so that she can hear how we speak, I teach her some words too, like ko, or kofke, like this.” (Agent, Boroa).

“I explain to her/him that she/he has a Mapuche name and what it means, that she/he doesn’t have to be ashamed of it” (Caregiver, Cholchol).

In recent years, there has been greater interest in teaching the language because the State has generated a policy of intercultural education in territories with a high concentration of indigenous people.

“We must rescue the good. Now there are teachers who teach children the Mapuchedungun. They’re practicing it, they’re ñañas (women) from the community, they give them their Mapuche food, they teach them Mapuche. That’s been recovering”. (Counselor, Saavedra)

“Here in the daycare center, we teach them everything Mapuche, it’s intercultural and we try to make them bi lingual even though the Ministry doesn’t say it has to be done, just teach them the language, but we practice all the culture, the food, the singing, the dancing, that way they learn to speak our language”. (Teacher, Ercilla).


The transfer and acquisition of the indigenous language by children is a major concern for the Mapuche people. For the interviewees, the acquisition of language and the act of speaking, either babbling or relating facts through language, is more than a skill or the demonstration of an advance in their children’s psychomotor development. It represents the preserva tion of the Mapuche identity. This is because there are multiple processes of invasion and colonization in the collective memory of society that have tried to inte grate the Mapuche people into Chilean society, ignor ing their history, territorial origin, and their contribu tion to the process of miscegenation in our society. The stories also stress processes of articulation, recovery, or vindication of the indigenous language in state policies that attempt to revitalize culture in those territories with a high concentration of indigenous population.

There are several intracultural ways to keep the language in the family such as tales, advice, stories, or songs in Mapudungun and that contribute to the ac quisition of the Mapuche language and cultural values. Children greet in Mapudungun, understand orders, and recognize cultural protocols. In general, they do not demonstrate to the outsider their bilingualism, however, as researchers, we observe the presence of a cultural code based on the language that children imi tate and understand. The language is still alive, in small details and in forms of intra-family communication.

Language acquisition as an infant’s psychomotor and cognitive ability does not have the intellectual rel evance that is attributed to it in our society. Children will talk when necessary because talking is functional, it is to communicate something relevant. Otherwise, it is better and more valuable to observe the surrounding events and to remain silent. In this context, we refer to the work of Bárbara Rogoff who points out that active observation and imitation play a fundamental role in the learning of indigenous children, more than mak ing explicit what is learned14. Likewise, Arriaga, Ortega, Meza, et al. indicate that observation and imitation should be considered as part of the behavior system that generates concrete experiences through the senses and that is transformed into real learning15. Very much in line with the words of the caregivers about learning through action and sensation, Pichon-Rivière shows that feeling, thinking, and doing allow for learning as a process of organizing and interpreting what is ob served16.

Conversations with families and teachers tell us that language acquisition is more than just saying, naming, or identify things, that the child will speak when he or she wants to communicate something important, and that this skill also depends on each child, his or her per sonal history or lineage. Communicating through orality is a cultural value of the person (being Mapuche), which is in continuous development, is achieved over time, and is not just a cognitive skill17.

The acquisition, use, and stimulation of Mapudungun in children can be considered an important ele ment of cultural resistance for the Mapuche people. It is the symbolic entity that preserves identity and the possibility of lasting through generations.

Future studies will clarify critical issues that were noted in this work but that due to the adherence to the objectives could not be deepened, among these, the phenomenon of transgenerationality of cultural changes in the teaching of the indigenous language in its cognitive, symbolic, and pragmatic aspects.

Ethical Responsibilities

Human Beings and animals protection: Disclosure the authors state that the procedures were followed ac cording to the Declaration of Helsinki and the World Medical Association regarding human experimenta tion developed for the medical community.

Data confidentiality: The authors state that they have followed the protocols of their Center and Local regu lations on the publication of patient data.

Rights to privacy and informed consent: The authors have obtained the informed consent of the patients and/or subjects referred to in the article. This docu ment is in the possession of the correspondence author.

Conflicts of Interest: Authors declare no conflict of interest regarding the present study.

Financial Disclosure:

FONDECYT 1150833.


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Received: December 04, 2018; Accepted: September 09, 2019

Correspondence: María Francisca Fernández Gutiérrez. E-mail:

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