The Future of Language Learning Part 3: Preserving the Past

Sometimes, the future involves taking a look at the past. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest and effort to preserve the world’s indigenous languages. An indigenous language is defined as a language, usually now the minority, spoken by the original peoples of a nation. There have been many programs designed to preserve the heritage of these languages, especially as they begin to disappear, such as the Native American Languages Act of 1990 in the United States and Go Compare’s efforts to preserve the sounds of these languages (read more in an article by the L.A. Times here).

NML interviewed Javier Hernandez, a Puerto Rican linguist who in 2003 developed an interest in preservation of the Taino language. Taino, a language native to Puerto Rico, exists now only in words and phrases, but Javier has made efforts to modernize and preserve the language, calling this modern variant Taino-Borikenaík. This has culminated in the publishing of a vocabulary book entitled Primario Básico del Taíno-Borikenaíki, a book dedicated to not only preserving the language but also making it a living language for the 21st century. Please see, in Javier’s own words, his thoughts on the project and the future of language preservation.

Tell me about your experience with language preservation.
In 2003, I began to study the Taino language, which only consisted of various words and phrases. Since no one else had ever decided to reconstruct the language, I decided to tackle that project. After many years of linguistic work and research, I managed to reconstruct a modern variant of the Taino language which I call Taino-Borikenaíki, but is also called Tainonaíki.I hope that Taino-Borikenaíki will become not just a living and spoken language in Puerto Rico and other areas of the Caribbean, but will also be an example of a nation reclaiming and restoring their Native American identity and language, especially in this age of globalization where many indigenous languages are becoming extinct. Taino-Borikenaíki is an example that a nation can rescue, reconstruct and restore their formerly “extinct” language and bring it back to life in the 21st century.

In your career, what has been the biggest challenge preserving a language?
Regarding Taino-Borikenaíki, the greatest challenge after its reconstruction and restoration has been the issue of language regulation, its linguistic growth, and its promotion within various segments of society. To regulate and guide the growth of this language, a committee (Comité del Idioma Taíno-Borikenaíki) will be created in Puerto Rico. New books and media in Taino-Borikenaíki are scheduled to be created and used within the Taino and Puerto Rican communities. Another very important issue is promoting the use, learning of, and the officialization of Taino-Borikenaíki in the communities where it is being learned and implemented.

Tell me about your decision to publish your book. Who is the intended audience and how are you hoping to use it?
I’ve always wanted to publish, but the issue was always “when”. The book was published in February 2018 and has received a lot of praise in Puerto Rico and within the Puerto Rican diaspora communities in North America. Although the main intended audience for the book are the various Taino cultural groups and organizations, many others have shown interest in learning this language as a way to connect with their indigenous Taino identity and cultural roots. My goal for Taino-Borikenaíki is for it to become a spoken and living language in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora communities. The language, called “Tainonaíki” by others, can also be used to promote Taino cultural and linguistic identity and solidarity between Puerto Rico and other Taino and indigenous groups in the Caribbean and Meso-American regions.

Has the book been used in any classrooms or programs yet?
Currently, the Primario Básico del Taíno-Borikenaíki is being used as a Taino language text and resource in the various schools led by the Naguaké Taino Community in Puerto Rico. In these schools, students learn not just about their Taino culture and identity, but also learn the Taino language alongside of Spanish and English. Students are able to write in either the Latin script or using their own Naguaké Taino pictographic alphabet script.

Are there any initiatives, either from schools, local, or national government, to preserve these languages?
Currently, the only Taino group that operates various schools and implements programs to teach, preserve, and promote the Taino language is the Naguaké Taino Community in Puerto Rico. Many other people, not affiliated to the Naguaké Taino Community, are also interested in learning and using Taino-Borikenaíki. Although mainly sold in Puerto Rico, the book has also sold various copies in the United States and Europe.

What has been done to preserve the culture of the language?
Since culture is multifaceted, my book aims to empower the linguistic voices and aspects of not just Taino culture, but Puerto Rican culture in general. The very act of being able to resurrect and restore the Taino language and use it in our daily lives shows to others what great things Puerto Ricans are capable of. The act of speaking in Taino-Borikenaíki is a way to reaffirm one’s Puerto Rican nationality, culture, and identity. Language, as we know, is a powerful force.

What do you think will need to happen in the future to keep this initiative going?
In order to keep the momentum going, the future committee, together with Naguaké and other Taino groups, will have to be committed in using, teaching, and promoting the language throughout Puerto Rico and the diaspora communities. In the book, I suggest various ideas and initiatives that the committee and various groups can implement to further expand the language, make it ubiquitous, and work on having the language become “official” at least in local and municipal areas where Taino-Borikenaíki speakers reside.

Mr. Hernandez’s book is available for purchase on Amazon. The Future of Language Learning is a continuing series for the National Museum of Language. If you have a unique perspective or insight on the learning of language in the 21st century, please contact to potentially be featured as part of an interview or article.