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Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán:
A Brief History of the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano
Extract from Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán,
"Instituto Lingüístico de Verano," América Indígena, Vol. XLI, No. 3, July-September, 1981

The productive history of ILV is exemplary, if we measure it by the scientific contributions which, in the brief span of forty years, it has made to the knowledge of the Native American languages; in phonology, grammatical structure, semantics, and practical aspects of teaching. William Townsend, founder of the Institute, began his career as a linguist among the Cakchiquels of Lake Atitlán. He translated the Bible into their language, started schools and achieved renown by inventing the Psychophonemic method for teaching monolingual Indians to read.


Moisés Sáenz, a Mexican educator who supported, in theory and practice, the mystique of the rural school and its intransigent mode of teaching, traveled to Guatemala in 1931, determined to learn the identity of the American Indian in his various forms. In Panajachel he ran into Townsend. He watched with profound admiration and was immediately convinced of the benefits of the methods that the linguist was using for teaching literacy among the local population. The results of teaching in the mother tongue could not have been more positive. Sáenz and Rafael Ramírez were the recognized fathers of the rural school system which grew out of the Revolution, and the pillars on which rested the theory of incorporation of the Indian into civilization, the assimilationist view that encouraged the direct teaching of Spanish  and the replacement of the native culture by the modern national culture. With the evidence of the work of the missionary linguist placed before his eyes, Sáenz made an about-face which transformed him, surprisingly, into the most powerful convert to the use of the indigenous language as an instrument of teaching, and he invited Mr. Townsend to work in Mexico. Townsend accepted this invitation, and by 1934, he settled among the Nahuatl people of Morelos.


Another historical accident favored Townsend's efforts and led to happy results. During one of the frequent tours that President Lázaro Cárdenas took through the rural areas of the Republic, he passed through Tetelcingo, the place where Townsend was working in order to begin the difficult task of learning and teaching in the vernacular language. Cárdenas found the American linguist spending his time teaching the beginnings of literacy to the monolingual children and adults of the area. He was favorably impressed and offered Townsend support so that he could extend his work to other ethnic groups. Townsend and Cárdenas developed, from that moment on, a friendship which led Townsend, when the expropriation of the petroleum industry was enacted in 1938, to be the first to declare himself in favor of it, and in its defense, he undertook a journey to the chambers of the highest officials and representatives of the people of the neighboring country to the north, to its universities and cultural centers, and in the course of this discussion, he authored polemics and gave lectures to clarify the causes and reasons that moved Mexico to reclaim as her own the energy sources which had been held by the international cartels. The monopolists of the mass-communications media had erected a wall, blocking the Mexican government from informing world opinion about the justice of that unusual act, carried out in the free exercise of its sovereignty, which had shaken the established power structure. Cárdenas never forgot this expression of courage and solidarity, whereby the missionary linguist put on the line not only his own prestige but the future of his enterprise, during those fateful days for Mexico.


Cárdenas in Tetelcingo
Cárdenas in Tetelcingo
Cárdenas and Townsend
Cárdenas and Townsend

Encouraged by the president, Townsend founded the Summer Institute of Linguistics as an establishment for recruitment and training of missionary linguists, and over the course of the years he placed the graduates—married couples, as a rule—in a hundred ethnic groups. There they have lived together with the inhabitants of the place for lengthy periods, in some cases settling permanently in a village without services, a place of poverty and hostile terrain. The linguists have learned the indigenous language to perfection, analyzing the structure, collecting the vocabulary, the phonetics, and the meanings, and they have given the spoken words a written expression using the symbols of the Spanish alphabet. Furthermore, they have built up an impressive bibliography, basically composed of linguistic studies of the highest academic caliber, covering all of the Native American languages still spoken in the country. To these things they have added the production, still on-going, of manuals for language learning, primers for teaching, dictionaries and vernacular literature, everything from the smallest pamphlet explaining agricultural or sanitary practices to the voluminous translation of the New Testament. Never in the history of Mexico, not in the Colonial period nor during the age of Independence, has any institution, whether religious or secular, native Mexican or foreign, been able to boast of a loftier contribution to the understanding and the transformation of our linguistic situation.