On the rugged crags of Barranco de Ávalo, a ravine on the small Canary Island of La Gomera, two local 12-year-olds were practicing their Silbo Gomero, the local whistling language. For an entrancing few minutes, Irún Castillo Perdomo and Angel Manuel Garcia Herrera’s lilting warbles reverberated around the barren gorge and soared proudly into the air like eagles in flight.
They were accompanied by 70-year-old retired Silbo Gomero teacher Eugenio Darias, whose grandfather used to own and work on this very same land. He told me that the boys’ whistled conversation was similar to any they would have over text message or in the playground, but the focus was instead on the six differentiating sounds that make up La Gomera’s protected whistle language.
While it’s true that most children their age would sooner pick up their phone and tap away, this small Canary Island invites them to think differently. Thanks to Darias, their threatened tongue has been a compulsory school subject since 1999 – and almost all 22,000 residents can understand it alongside their mother tongue of Canarian Spanish.
“It’s important to give students the idea that they can really use it if they need to, like other languages, but also that it’s not necessary for everyday use,” said Darias, who pioneered the Silbo Gomero learning programme. “Our aim is to give the whistle more importance so that the children can be confident using it together. Importantly, having the whistle protected within our compulsory curriculum prevents extinction altogether.”
Read more: BBC Travel