Students Assist with Mayan Language Revitalization Project

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – “Saqarik!” (sah-kah-REEK!) “Good morning!”

So began presentations to grade schoolers in Nahualá, Guatemala, given by four Middlebury students as part of a Mayan language revitalization project this past January. The project was led by Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Brandon Baird.

“The school kids would always laugh when they heard us speak in K’iche’,” said senior James Finn. “A lot of the kids and just people in general see Americans and expect them to speak English, so when they heard us speaking in Spanish they were surprised. And then when they heard us speaking, you know, K’iche’, it was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here!’”

Baird says that part of their revitalization work is overcoming a social stigma. “People there have been raised hearing—and it has been supported by the government—that speaking a Mayan language makes you less of a person, makes you inferior. It means you’re not as smart as someone else who speaks another language, particularly, in this case, Spanish.”

To counter such myths and attitudes, Baird and his students presented at local grade schools, distributed posters, and recorded live on the national K’iche’ radio station, Nawal Estéreo, in Nahualá. The topic: current research on the benefits of bilingualism in terms of neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology. Bilingual speakers, for example, are better at critical thinking and problem solving; better able to adapt to social situations; and better at speaking and understanding both languages.

Research even suggests they are less likely to develop dementia, have more gray matter in their central nervous systems (making them “smarter”), and can earn more money.

January’s project grew in part, said Baird, out of his desire to give back to a community that’s been so welcoming to him. He has been conducting research on indigenous language aspects of Spanish linguistics in Guatemala for over a decade. Since 2012, he’s focused on Nahualá, a town of some 60,000–70,000 in Guatemala’s western highlands. Concerns about losing their language is something that residents have shared with him from his earliest stays.

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