When Saul Escobar was punished for daring to speak his mother tongue inside a Ucayali school, it never occurred to him that one day he would be a professor in a university and would teach in Shipibo, the very language that had so exasperated the mestizo director of his school.


Saul remembers that with a smile, the same smile that he flashed two decades ago when Gerardo Zerdin, then the parish priest in Atalaya, decided to support him so that he could receive a university education in Lima. “I want to study, but I don’t have money,” Saul had told him. Saul has come a long way since then; not only is he a professor at the Universidad Nopoki, but he is about to get his masters degree.



‘I have come’
Even though the idea had been bouncing around his head since the 1990s, it was only in 2005 that Zerdin, the bishop of San Ramón, with jurisdiction covering all of Peru’s central jungle, put his plan into motion. He approached the Monsignor Lino Panitza, the bishop of Carabayllo and founder of the Universidad Católica Sedes Sapientiae (UCSS), and asked him to help achieve his dream of creating an educational center for the indigenous population in Atalaya.


Having lived with various ethnic groups in the Amazon, and especially with the Shipibo, Zerdin observed that the education in the classroom left a lot to be desired, as the teachers came from other parts of Peru, did not integrate into the communities, did not teach in the local languages and disappeared for long periods of time. So, he thought, the best thing would be if the locals themselves received an education, to later impart it to their communities. Lino Panitza, who shared the idea of providing opportunities for marginalized young people, was receptive, and that same year, an agreement was signed between the vicarship of San Román and the UCSS to create Nopoki (‘I have come’ in Asháninka).

“I don’t have words to express the greatness of Nopoki”
In 2012, four students belonging to the Yine culture graduated from Nopoki with bachelor’s degrees. It was hard work for Remigio Zapata, in charge of Yine grammar and tasked with reviewing all of the daily lessons that the students received in that language. “The course that was hardest for me was math, in part because of the insufficient prior education, but also because words like tangent, parallel and vertical are untranslatable into Yine,” he says.


Juan López, also a professor at Nopoki, had to live up to his Yánesha name, Oth, which means “the strongest, the most powerful,” in order to overcome all of the challenges that life has presented him. When he was an important Yánesha leader, he was kidnapped for fifteen days by Shining Path; he studied at the La Cantuta University until Fujimori closed it and he had to flee to Pucallpa to continue his studies; later, he was elected mayor of the district of Palcazú, and when he refused a bribe from narcotraffickers, they put a price on his head. He had to leave Peru, assisted by German NGOs. In 2004, he returned to his community in the central jungle to work as a primary school teacher. Now, in Nopoki, he feels fulfilled. “Here, the students have food, a bed, sanitary facilities, clothes, healthcare, and that’s priceless. Education is the key to development, and the graduates of Nopoki have a complete education; they aren’t just teachers, but rather can create electrical, water and sewage systems. I don’t have words to express the greatness of Nopoki. If I’d had this opportunity, I would be an ambassador or a cabinet minister,” says Juan.

In 2006, Nopoki started as a pre-university center. The communities were very enthusiastic about the project. Roughly sixty students arrived and prepared themselves while UCSS was creating a bilingual, bicultural program. In 2007, there was an entrance exam, and the spectrum of participating indigenous nations expanded significantly. By then, professors from UCSS were already teaching, but they did not have the campus they now occupy. All of the activities were carried out in the Atalaya parish house. The rooms held up to 20 students on cots.

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In 2008, they received 30 hectares for the campus. The students cleared the land themselves and later helped to build the university. In 2010, they moved to the campus. In 2011, the first class of 26 students graduated with bachelors degrees. In December of 2012, 33 young indigenous students graduated, and they are now at the UCSS campus in Lima to receive their licenses.

Today, the administration of Nopoki is shared. The payroll is the responsibility of UCSS, and the expenses for housing the students and construction are billed to the vicarship. Help from international NGOs and private donations have been important in making the project a reality.


‘He awoke our hearts’
Jovita Vasqúez, a 33-year-old Shipibo-Conibo from the first graduating class, is already a councilwoman in the Atalaya provincial government. She had always wanted to make something of herself, but it was impossible for her to finish her studies in Pucallpa due to a lack of funds. In her community, located in the district of Tahuanía, they spoke of Monsignor Zerdin as a legendary figure who helped the Shipibo. She let him know that she was interested in studying. That’s how she was considered for inclusion in Nopoki. “I learned to value my culture. The monsignor awoke our hearts and fed our self-esteem,” says a grateful Jovita.

Diógenes Campos, a 23-year-old Asháninka, is in the second entering class and lives in the indigenous community Aerija. From 2008 to 2010, he lived at Nopoki, but that he has a wife and son, he lives in his community and walks an hour each way to the university. In the future, he wants to work as a teacher in his community and to promote the development of agriculture, tourism, handicraft production and health. Unlike earlier generations, Diógenes believes in family planning and only wants to have two children. That is just one of the cultural changes he wants to inspire among his compatriots.


A simple act of justice
The vice rector of UCSS, Dr. Gianbatista Bolis, was surprised by the ability of the indigenous students to pick apart the poems of Rilke, Pavese and Leopardi and associate them with their own experiences. This reinforces an important theory in intercultural anthropology, posited by Alain Touraine, which holds that all languages are dialects of one fundamental language, which is the language of the heart of man.

What’s certain is that a project like Nopoki could not be carried out without the belief that all human beings have the same potential and greatness. There are people with few opportunities, not fewer capacities. Giving them the tools to chart their own destiny is a simple act of justice.




The natives graduated in the municipal coliseum of Atalaya, under the rain but illuminated by knowledge. Soon, they would leave to study for their licenses in Lima. As if by ritual, they would water, and take their photos next to, an aguaje palm tree that the first class had planted on the UCSS campus in Los Olivos. The palm tree has grown, and so have they.


* Álvaro Rocha for Somos,Translated and adapted by Nick Rosen (January 23, 2013)

Thinking in another language changes how people weigh their options.

The study of how people process foreign languages has traditionally focused on the topics we wrestled with in high school French or Spanish classes — botched grammar, misunderstood vocabulary, and mangled phonemes. But in recent years psychologists have gone to the laboratory with a phenomenon that historically was only discussed in memoirs by bilingual writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Eva Hoffman: a foreign language feels less emotional than the mother tongue. Consider the case of taboo words. For many multilinguals, swearing in a foreign languagedoesn’t evoke the same anxiety (or bring the same emotional release) as using a native language. Decreased emotionality in a foreign language spans the gamut of emotions, from saying “I love you,” to hearing childhood reprimands, to uttering morally grave lies, or being influenced bypersuasive messages in advertising.

Researchers have sought to understand the range and limits of these emotional language effects. Lower proficiency and/or late acquisition of the foreign language seems to be a crucial constraint. For people whogrew up bilingual, skin conductance responses and self-reports were similar when listening to emotional phrases in either language. One method for finding new types of emotional-language effects is to examine areas where cognitive neuroscience reports that people can switch between analytical processing and emotional processing. Gut, automatic or instinctive reasoning is grounded in an emotional good-bad response. Alternatively, reasoning can be the result of a deliberative process that involves careful, logical analysis. Would bilinguals be more analytical and less emotional when making decisions in a foreign language?

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An of University of Chicago asked this question in a paper recently published in Psychological Science. They studied framing effects, a phenonmenon investigated by Daniel Kahneman and others. When a decision is verbally framed as involving a gain, humans prefer a sure outcome over a probabilistic outcome. When the same situation is framed as involving losses, people sometimes prefer to gamble. For example, given a scenario involving 600 sick individuals and two types of medicines to administer, research participants prefer the medicine which will save 200 people for sure, rather than the medicine which has a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 sick people and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. If the formally identical illness scenario is provided, but framed in terms of how many people will die, then research participants are more likely to choose the probabilistic option. Framing effects are one of the classic examples of how humans deviate from logical reasoning, and indeed, individuals with a propensity for logical reasoning, such as those with Asperger Syndrome, are less influenced by the verbal frame when making these types of decisions.

The Chicago researchers randomly assigned bilinguals to read and respond to decision-making scenarios using either their native or foreign language. Similar versions of the study were conducted in the U. S, France and Korea.  This was important because a foreign language may feel more emotional when it is the language of daily life, as happens when studying at a foreign university. English was the first language for the U. S. participants and the foreign language for Korean participants. In France, English was the native language and the French was the foreign language but also language of immersion. Data from all three locations were consistent: the standard framing effects were found for the native language and were absent in the foreign language. The implication is that people were less influenced by emotional aspects of the scenarios when reading scenarios in their foreign language. This is an impressive finding since one might have supposed that the stress of using a less proficient language would diminish the cognitive resources needed for deliberative reasoning, thus pushing people to make gut, instinctive or emotional responses.

The authors ran additional experiments using a paradigm called loss aversion, another case where emotion can influence decision making. People are reluctant to accept bets that involve a chance of losing money, even if the odds are in the favor of winning, such as a 50 percent chance of winning $12 vs. losing $10. Keysar and colleagues found that, regardless of whether the bilinguals played with hypothetical money or real cash that could be kept after the experiment ended, bilinguals accepted the positive bets more often when they played using their foreign language and more often resisted betting when using their native language. This confirmed the finding of being reasoning more logically when using a foreign language.

Language has been traditionally viewed as a vehicle for communicating information (indeed, Chomsky famously characterized language as a mental algebra). Researchers have assumed that, as along as people are proficient enough, then how they respond will not be affected by the language they are using. It is now becoming better appreciated that people answer surveys differently depending on the language. For example, Chinese international students studying in North America agreed with traditional Chinese values more when answering a survey in Chinese; they had higher self-esteem scores when completing a self-esteem questionnaire in English. The full extent of these effects of languages on responses are still being investigated.

Like the other emotional-language effects discussed above, Keysar’s study on how language influences decision making are laboratory effects. Is this what happens outside the lab? Psychologists are increasingly advising foreigners in the US to seek psychotherapy with a bilingual counselor, and, to minimize missing nuances or emotional implications, to avoid conducting life-or-death conversations in a foreign language, such as a serious talk with a doctor, taking a polygraph test, or undergoing police interrogation. But in the decision making case studied by the Chicago team, use of a foreign language led to more logical and better decisions. Does this imply that bilinguals should routinely seek to use their foreign languages when making decisions? Should they buy a house or plan their retirement using a foreign language? An ethnographic approach could analyze cases where individuals end up using their native or a foreign language to conduct business. A wide range of laboratory and/or field experiments should be conducted in order to determine if the elimination of framing effects is a cute laboratory finding or something that may influence real life.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.



Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Trained in psycholinguistics and cognitive science, she has conducted research on a wide variety of topics, including language processing, cross-cultural psychology and individual differences in cognitive styles.