Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning a Mayan language

After almost 70 hours of lessons in Mam with a friend here in site, I'm going to relate the diagnosis that learning a Mayan language is not that easy. First, you have the issue of distinguishing the sounds: k', k, ky', ky, q', q, j all tend to lend themselves to beautiful confusion. Was that kyaq' (caliente/rojo)? Or wait, was it ky'aq (flea)? Or wait, maybe it was kya'j (cielo)? The incredible thing being that native speakers don't just divine the meaning based on context (as in the English where/wear), they really differentiate the pronunciation of sounds that to my ear sound almost identical. Don't even get me started on tx' and ch', nor their cousins ch, tx, x, and x with dieresis...

Then there is the issuing of producing the sounds. Oh man, is that something else entirely. I'm getting better, although without constant practice I slip back and forget the difference between sounds. There's no better way to test how I'm doing than to try to speak with the kids in the family, especially 3-year-old Rene, who doesn't speak much Spanish (see the post "Que es eso?") Tonight the two of us were hanging out in the kitchen together sharing the dinner I'd made. Somehow we always manage to communicate via our rudimentary modified Spanish, but I decided to throw a little Mam in the mix and ask for the name of things around the kitchen. My efforts sort of failed, with good reason (I realized later I was asking him "What's your name?" rather than "What do you call this?"), but my efforts did inspire Renecito to start giving me random words to try to pronounce. He found this game HIGHLY entertaining and his mom told me that he later reported to her (in Mam of course) how wonderful it was that I pronounced the word for "dish" with "j" instead of "q". What kind of idiot do we have living with us, anyway, Mom?

Finally I finished the conversation by saying, "Ma chin wane" (I just ate), to which Renecito responded in an exasperated tone, "Nqowane" (We're eating!) Pretty funny. And awesome to understand a word, to have insight into what Renecito is thinking, in his own language!

So, progress is definitely slow, since I am often way too lazy and tired from my primary "work" to study as much as I could, but I get encouragement in every smile and even every scoff when I offer up to people in a tienda "chjonte" (thanks), or to those I pass on the street, "wiya" (bye) or "chab'aya" or "chab'aqeye" (little by little, roughly like "take it easy"), or "mmm" to the ancianitos (a greeting of respect).

Whether people seem to react positively or not, I think even minuscule efforts to speak Mam do make a difference to people. The point really hit home for me with the thunderous round of applause I got after giving a talk on indigenous rights and mining to a group of young leaders, closing with "chjonte tun amb'il y chjonte tun nak'b'il" (thanks for the time and thanks for your attention). Such moments make me feel great and really encourage me to work to be able to speak and understand the basics.

Then there is the fact that I am learning this language through Spanish. Did I dream myself capable of this a year ago? Not really, to be honest. But that is one of the truly cool things about Peace Corps, the chance to break those limits you thought you had, chab'aku (little by little).

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