In the growing dialogue about Native language practices and revitalization, limited attention has been given to Indigenous children’s everyday communication. Voices of Play: Miskitu Children’s Speech and Song on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua is a study of multilingual play and performance among Miskitu children growing up on Corn Island, part of a multi-ethnic autonomous region on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. In the book, author Amanda Minks weaves together theories of culture and communication, creating a transdisciplinary dialogue that moves across intellectual geographies. In the following Q&A, Minks explains why Corn Island is a particularly good place to study processes of cultural creativity in response to colonialism and the complexities of Indigenous language use, cultural reproduction, and change.
What first attracted you to study children’s play on Corn Island?
In the early stages of my graduate work at Columbia, I had been doing exploratory research studying cross-cultural interaction in peer play among immigrant children in New York City. I already had some background in Latin American and Caribbean studies and had read Edmund Gordon’s book Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African-Nicaraguan Community, focused on Creole culture, history, and politics (University of Texas Press, 1998). Out of curiosity, I took a trip to Corn Island and was absolutely captured by the innovative and diverse practices of communication I overheard there. I was expecting Creole English and Spanish, but I was not expecting to hear kids playing in a mixture of languages, of which I could understand only bits and pieces.
Corn Island sign erected by a regional bilingual-intercultural education project, with a message in English, Spanish, and Miskitu. Photo by author.
As I talked to people I met on the island, I figured out they were Miskitu kids, and when I went back to New York I became obsessed with learning more about Miskitu language, history, culture, and politics. The communicative practices of Miskitu kids on Corn Island brought the issues of cross-cultural interaction that I had been studying into much sharper focus, and I felt compelled to change research topics.
Though it is a small, out-of-the-way place, Corn Island sheds light on much more widespread processes of cultural creativity shaped by colonial and neocolonial histories. Its location in a border zone between the Caribbean and Central America, its history as a site of cross-cultural interaction and mixture, and its contemporary condition as a dynamic community of diverse migrants and founding Creole families all make Corn Island a special place for examining Indigenous peoples’ language use, cultural reproduction, and change.
How do children at play provide insight into the language acquisition process?
In linguistic anthropology, we think of language acquisition as part of a broader process of language socialization, which Bambi Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs initially theorized as socialization (learning) to use language, and socialization through language. From this perspective, children’s language entails a much broader acquisition of practices that are fundamental to cultural reproduction and change.
The paradigm of language socialization always included a range of actors not limited to children, and the recognition that socialization is an ongoing process across the lifespan. However, many of the early studies focused more on adult-child interaction than on children’s peer interaction. When we focus on peer interaction, we are able to see some similarities with child-adult interaction. For example, children are very adept at recognizing cultural norms, making them explicit, and enforcing them in peer play. Other times, in contrast to adults, children’s play reveals much more spontaneity, improvisation, and creativity in the forms and meanings of their communication.
This openness and capacity for transformation make children’s play a key site for tracking processes of cultural change. Taking a broad view of children’s play also enables us to expand beyond language use and to consider music and other aesthetic practices as equally important media for communication and socialization.
When describing your research methods, you mentioned having an older sibling or parent help to decipher and contextualize a younger child’s language. Can you expand on this process?
In language socialization studies, researchers typically transcribe recordings of naturally occurring discourse in collaboration with native speakers. Even when the researcher is a native speaker, this methodology is useful for incorporating other viewpoints of people familiar with the particular social setting, and getting multiple perspectives of “what is going on” in an interaction. This process may be especially important for studying children’s discourse, because children can be very idiosyncratic and creative in their language use. It is also important because the meaning of an interaction can never be reduced to a literal transcription and translation of the utterances used.
Communication draws on layers of social and cultural contexts that can only be analyzed through ethnographic methods, including a great deal of observation, listening, and analysis in collaboration with people who know the setting and actors very well. In my own experience, working with my co-interpreters was essential not only for the process of transcription, translation, and interpretation; it also provided a small circle of people who deeply understood what the research was about and became some of my closest friends and intellectual companions.
How does a child’s language within the family unit or at play differ from their language used in an education setting?
Playing a marble game called koko mana. Photo by author.
The range of communicative practices that are encouraged and explicitly incorporated in educational settings is usually much more narrow than the range that children use and hear at home and in the peer group. The Miskitu-dominant Moravian school on Corn Island was exceptional in this regard because most children felt comfortable using and mixing a variety of languages in and out of the classroom, even before the school implemented a multilingual-intercultural education program. Still, educational contexts on Corn Island typically used multilingualism as a stepping stone to Spanish-dominant classes in the upper grades. At home and in the peer group, multilingualism was a much more deeply engrained practice of everyday communication that even older children continued to use after they acquired proficiency in Spanish at school.
Another key point is that in contrast to educational settings, informal play activities tend to be child-directed, revealing children’s emergent tendencies and preferences for language use (as well as other repertoires of communication). On Corn Island, as in many other places, children’s activities at home and in the neighborhood are overseen by older siblings, cousins, and other peers rather than being closely monitored by adults. Children have considerable freedom to experiment with different modes of communication in their play, but they also have tremendous influence on each other.
A good example is one of my focal groups of children on Corn Island whose cousins from a mainland Miskitu village came to live with them permanently. The new arrivals only spoke Miskitu, while the Corn Island kids spoke more Creole English and Spanish, though they also had a lot of Miskitu knowledge. The parents of the Corn Island kids had discouraged them from speaking Miskitu because they feared it would hinder their success in school. When the Miskitu-dominant cousins arrived, this peer group’s play shifted to incorporate more Miskitu, which their parents were not very happy about. Last summer when I was chatting with some of these kids (now in college in Managua), they laughed heartily when they recalled one of the family matriarchs coming out and yelling at them (in Miskitu), “If I hear you speaking Miskitu, you girls are going to get a whipping!” The irony of this bivalent message was not lost on them, as the mother seemed to be conveying “do as I say and not as I do.” Children adapt to multiple, sometimes contradictory messages in language socialization, and these particular kids ended up greatly valuing and maintaining their multilingualism.
You used recordings and transcripts to help with your research, and in later chapters, you also mention the effects that television and other technology have on language. How do the use of recordings and other technology help or hinder language revitalization?
Let me first address recording as a research methodology. Recordings are very useful tools to document how people actually use language in everyday practices. However, researchers need to be cognizant of culturally appropriate ways of making and using recordings, and always uphold ethical obligations to the people with whom they work. Ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have a troubled history in this regard, since early research was not always carried out with informed consent of those being studied, and communities often did not maintain control over how the recordings were used. There is no justification for this history, aside from recognizing the limits of our ethical standards at any given moment. But paradoxically, many of the recordings produced under unethical circumstances have become a resource for cultural and linguistic revitalization in recent years, as younger generations use them to learn forgotten practices of their communities.
Contemporary researchers, at least those affiliated with universities, must follow much stricter guidelines for obtaining consent to make and use recordings. Those who work with Indigenous communities often collaborate with them to develop research topics and methodologies that are desired and valued by the community itself. The Miskitu people with whom I worked were open to recordings of various kinds, but I did make a difficult decision to use only audio recording rather than audiovisual recording. Recent language socialization studies have shown the special value of videorecording for capturing a rich interactive context that includes gesture and bodily stance. However, videorecording was not feasible in the public spaces on Corn Island in which children played, in a volatile social context where crime and random (or not so random) violence were a daily reality.
I used audio recording, which was much more discreet from the perspective of passers-by, along with detailed notes and photographs to document children’s play activities. All forms of documentation create a representation of a social interaction rather than reproducing the interaction itself, but recordings still help to reveal the moment-by-moment negotiation of interaction, and to ground the analysis in specific interactions rather than relying on generalizations. Understanding how people use language provides essential insights for designing and implementing effective language revitalization programs, as Barbra Meek has shown in her book in this series, We Are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community (University of Arizona Press, 2010).
Researchers have never had a monopoly on technology. Radio and recordings have long been a source of expressive repertoires on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, evident for example in the regional popularity of classic U.S. country music like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. At the time of my study, Miskitu children on Corn Island were the first generation of their families to grow up with regular television viewing, somewhat delayed because of the irregular access to electricity and the relatively recent development of a satellite cable TV system on the island.
Boys playing Nintendo for a fee, and watching for free. Photo by author.
Some observers might view increased television viewing as a threat to Native language maintenance, but I think it was actually part of a broader expansion of communicative resources that continued to include Miskitu and other regional languages (or language varieties). In chapter five of my book, I show how Miskitu kids enacted elaborate pretend play scenarios that involved characters and plots from Spanish-language TV shows, but they often voiced these characters in Miskitu, revealing a creative recombination of figures and voices.
On the mainland Atlantic Coast, community radio and television stations foreground regional languages and cultures, reclaiming technology for cultural and political imperatives at the local and regional level. In order to understand the impact of technology and media in any particular place, we must employ ethnographic methods to see what people are using in their daily lives and how they are using these forms of communication.
What changes do you see happening to Corn Island’s hybrid languages in the future?
I think that Corn Island will continue to be a vibrant site for hybrid and transformative language use. One aspect that has changed since my research is that use of Miskitu seems to be less stigmatized in public spaces now, so that Miskitu kids at the public school are more likely to use Miskitu openly rather than hiding it. This is partly due to the ongoing changes in demographics and political representation on the island and in the region, as Miskitu identities and cultural practices have been revalorized in official spaces under regional autonomy.
This process is ambivalent, sometimes caught up in the clientelistic management of power at the national and regional level, and not always tied to improved opportunities for the poorest sectors of society. Nevertheless, a larger argument of my book is that Miskitu kids’ creative practices of communication open up new possibilities for different kinds of political subjectivities and interventions. I end the book on an optimistic note that brings Walter Benjamin’s concept of children’s mimetic cognition into dialogue with some of the Miskitu kids’ current reflections, as young adults, about the political possibilities of their diverse communicative repertoires and the continued maintenance of their Miskitu identities (intersecting, always, with many other kinds of identities).
Amanda Minks is an assistant professor of anthropology in the University of Oklahoma Honors College. Voices of Play: Miskitu Children’s Speech and Song on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua is now available from the University of Arizona Press.
This book is unique in how it brings together a novel ethnographic focus, ethnomusicology, and linguistic anthropology. Few ethnographies have been written about children in the anthropological literature, and even fewer have focused on children’s interactions. Voices of Play provides a detailed look at the everyday exchanges and the play performances of children and adolescents of Miskitu descent who are marginalized in various ways within the Nicaraguan nation-state.