The Language of Water

The Language of Water

Photograph by Jason Hetherington / Trunk Archive



A team of researchers in Mexico are working to translate scientific processes into various Indigenous languages. The Frontline digs into their latest project: translating the water cycle.

Indigenous people across their world carry their own knowledge systems that inform their science. The Western scientific community is finally beginning to recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge—especially in the midst of the climate crisis. 


However, a group of researchers in Mexico have initiated a two-way transfer of science in an attempt to translate different scientific material into Indigenous languages. Topics that have already been translated include astrophysics and nanotechnology. The current project focuses on the Earth’s water cycle. Throughout these efforts, many Indigenous communities also offer their own scientific lessons to researchers. 


Welcome to The Frontline, where we understand the power of language. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. In grade school, we’re all taught about how our planet works. In Mexico, Indigenous children are taught this, too—except they’re not taught in their first language. They’re taught in Spanish. That may all soon change thanks to these efforts, paving a path for Indigenous children to become more engaged in the global scientific community.







The Western world believes precipitation falls from the sky. In many Indigenous cultures, rain (a form of precipitation) doesn’t fall. The sky gives it. That’s just one example of how complicated translating scientific processes into Indigenous languages can be, especially within a context that makes sense to an Indigenous understanding of the world. 


In Mexico, a group of scientists have stepped up to the challenge because, as they see it, receiving information in your language is a human right. Plus, these languages are becoming endangered—they need more investment. As the climate crisis alters the Earth’s natural rhythms, understanding this science is growing more urgent. As is creating a more equitable and inclusive scientific field where Indigenous youth feel welcome. Most critically, projects like this create dialogue between researchers and various Indigenous groups—a dialogue where traditional communities are the teachers.


“You have to recognize the diversity of knowledge,” said Cecilia Conde, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change. “It’s not just one cosmovision or not one kind of knowledge—that’s key. We have to make these bridges between the knowledge.”


Mexico is home to 68 different Indigenous languages that can be broken up into more than 350 dialects and variations. Despite the diversity of language, students only learn in Spanish. The team, which represents the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Mexico’s National Indigenous Languages Institute, began its efforts in 2018. Since then, they’ve translated materials into over 19 languages, including Amuzgo, which is spoken near the Pacific coast, and Náhuatl, which is one of the more common Indigenous languages. 

“We have to make these bridges between the knowledge.”

Cecilia Conde
National Autonomous University of Mexico

Right now, they’re focused on translating a poster communicating the water cycle. Our planet feeds us water through a cycle that links the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Earth’s surface releases water from plants and bodies of water, which is then carried into the atmosphere where clouds convert it into rain or snow (scientifically known as precipitation). That water, in turn, feeds the waterways of the world: rivers, streams, lakes. 


“What we are describing occurs all over the world,” Conde said. “It’s not only a village. It’s not only a country. The natural water cycle is everywhere—so is the sun, so is evaporation, so is precipitation… They know because we all live that process, but we are linking our knowledge with them.”


Trying to translate such a complicated process isn’t simple or easy: it involves meetings and presentations with scientists, linguists, teachers, and Indigenous communities to ensure that the translations are accurate and culturally appropriate. In certain cases, words don’t exist in some Indigenous languages. That’s when the team really has to get creative. Sometimes, they have to leave words in Spanish in the translated material with an explanation as to why in the respective language. 


“It’s a long process,” said Luis Flores Martínez, a manager in the institute’s department for the design and consultancy of linguistic policies at the municipal level, speaking in Spanish. “But these materials are made with intention and care to ensure high-quality scientific communication.”


Still, it’s not as though the team is teaching Indigenous communities something new or novel. In fact, the researchers argue that many Indigenous communities understand and respect the Earth’s rhythms better than they or others in Western science do. What is novel is the identification of words to describe such science in languages too often ignored in Mexico. That not only benefits the Indigenous population—it also benefits the study and preservation of culture. 

“What we are describing occurs all over the world. It’s not only a village. It’s not only a country. The natural water cycle is everywhere.”

Cecilia Conde
National Autonomous University of Mexico

“If we think about languages as a part of our national culture in Mexico, they give us a great richness,” said Darío Núñez, a researcher at the university’s Nuclear Science Institute. “We should protect and support them, and one way is through the development of this language and expression.”


Plus, Indigenous kids are learning this in school—is it not unjust that they are not taught in their first language? The researchers have already begun to share materials with teachers because they’ll be the ones using it, after all. Success will look like teachers using these translations in the classroom, said Ana María Cetto, a research professor at the university’s Institute of Physics. It may also look like an exchange of culture—and the answering of urgent questions.


As billionaires and scientists look to technology and machinery for answers around humanity’s future, many Indigenous cultures raise the question: why when the Earth gives us all we need? Building linguistic bridges can help the rest of us embrace this worldview. Colonialism tried to erase this way of thinking, but the colonizers didn’t succeed.


With this project, the organizers hope to repair some of that historical harm. It won’t undo centuries of oppression, but it can—at the very least—underscore the wisdom held within Indigenous communities. After all, rain doesn’t fall. It’s given. It’s time we show some gratitude.

Correction, June 1, 2022 1:40 pm ET
The story previously stated Mexico is home to 69 different languages due to a typing error. The correct number is 68.

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