Kichwa: An Indigenous Quechuan Language In Ecuador

11 April 2024
By: Abby Pauley, Manna Project International
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< Manna Project International Program Director Evan Gaalswyk and Intern Paola Espinoza. As of May, 2023, Manna calls the rural community of Shandia home. Nestled in the Amazon Rainforest, the rural village has a population of about 350 people and is located just outside of the small city of Tena (pop. around 25,000) in the province of Napo. The community is 100% Kichwa indigenous. >

Do you know the difference between Kichwa and Quechua? Well, if you asked me I would say that both words rhyme but they are spelled differently. One is spelled with a K as in Kichwa. And the other is spelled with a Q as in Quechua. But the major difference between the two… hmmm, we’ll let our friends from Manna Project International tell you all about Kichwa and Quechua.

What is Kichwa
Kichwa is one of the languages and peoples of South America. The Kichwa language is part of the larger family of Quechua, spoken by indigenous peoples in the Andes region of South America, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and even parts of Argentina and Chile. It dates back many years to before the Incas, having been adopted by the Incas' contemporary foes and their peers.

Kichwa in Ecuador
Kichwa holds a special place in Ecuador - being one of the official languages of the country alongside Spanish, however, it is only one of many indigenous languages in Ecuador. Most estimates say that there are 23 languages spoken across the country. However, Kichwa is the most widely spoken indigenous language, with about 450,000 native speakers - or about 7% of the country’s population.

Just like many languages, there are many different dialects of Kichwa depending on location, age, and learning community. These dialects can be as diverse as the difference between Portuguese and Spanish speakers or Dutch and German, making it a challenging and rewarding language to learn! The dialects have differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. There is currently an initiative to create a universal Kichwa at the governmental level so that different communities of speakers can work together more easily in the government.

Being a language that dates back to pre-written language, it has a rich oral tradition that continues to play a vital role in Kichwa communities. For example, in the small Amazonian community of Shandia, Ecuador, they are currently working with the non-profit Manna Project International to build a library and cultural center where Kichwa people can come together and share stories, culture, and life.

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Together Manna Project International, the local Kichwa-Spanish bilingual public school, Unidad Educativa ‘Jaime Eliot’, and the local Parents’ Association are building a community space and library. The cultural area is used as a place where the larger Kichwa community can come together, learn about culture, and share stories with the intent of keeping Kichwa culture alive for further generations.

Promotion of Kichwa in Ecuador
In recent years, there has been growing awareness and support for the preservation and promotion of Kichwa and other indigenous languages in Ecuador and across the Andean region. These efforts are crucial for maintaining linguistic diversity and cultural heritage in the face of globalization and cultural assimilation in addition to having larger benefit’s on a community’s mental and physical health.

Learn Kichwa with Manna Project International
Manna Project International has prioritized the learning of Kichwa for all local team-members and volunteers. Anybody not fluent in Kichwa is given the opportunity to learn it in the public school system or in small group tutoring.

Many of our projects center on preservation of Kichwa culture from agricultural projects to ecotourism and health. In all of this, we make sure that we are invited in by our Kichwa partners to use our skills to create a healthier Kichwa community. As a social impact-driven non-profit, it is extremely important to us to encourage the preservation of this language and to get to know our neighbors in their cultural language.

This also means that many children in Ecuador and throughout the Andes are growing up with Kichwa as their mother tongue, ensuring its success for generations to come. Today, you can find bilingual Kichwa/Spanish schools in communities around the Andes as well as its presence in a growing number of universities, governments, and municipalities.

“Quechua's survival is inspiring. It reflects the strength and resilience of its people. It's a language that thrives against all odds. It's an enduring voice of an ancient era. Let's keep the spirit of Quechua alive.”
-Unraveling the Threads of Quechua