Mayan & Nahuatl have no street cred

What about the statistics?

Nahuatl and Mayan are languages spoken by different groups in different regions of my country, and according to recent censuses (censii?), both have over one million speakers, native and non-native, but the sad truth is that they’re seldom spoken outside their communities. Two of the three people I know who speak either outside their respective native communities do so because they’re professionally required to do so (the third, like me, is a language learner by hobby).

As with almost all major native languages with some sort of historic or political weight, such as Hawaiian and Modern Hebrew, in the past few years there’s been a revitalization movement for both of these languages, as well as 63~65ish other Mexican tongues with widely varying numbers of speakers. The National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI, by its initials in Spanish) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, so there’s an actual government-backed institution whose mission is to protect these languages. Good to know, right?

How come I’d never heard from this organization until last year, then?

My point is that I have seen dozen upon dozen of ads and fliers advertising English, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean… but in twenty six years of life I have only seen one tiny advertisement for a Nahuatl course (drowned in the immensity of a college bulletin board) and zero, zip, nada, for courses in all other native languages. For shame!

It isn’t that there are no courses or resources. Although all too few, a few universities and educational institutions do offer Nahuatl (once again, I could find no mention on physical places to study Mayan), and INALI has a few publications circulating . The Internet paints an encouraging picture, offering all sorts of resources for both, from activities and pictionaries for kids to full-fledged courses. From what I’ve heard, some American colleges located in immigrant strongholds, such as California and New York, also offer Nahuatl. There’s even a Nahuatl version of Wikipedia, going strong with almost 9,500 articles (almost as many as Yiddish, another revival language).

If there are resources, places and teachers for these languages, and institutions that are supposed to keep them for posterity, why do they remain a relatively obscure language?

It might be not that they have a good or a bad rep, but that these languages actually have no publicist, no manager, no nothing.

In most situations, the mention of any language automatically throws us back to its originating culture. French is a cosmopolitan, fashionable language, while Japanese is tightly linked to both its traditional and modern cultures. German has a clean cut, running-with-the-clock, country-of-engineers image, while Italian’s a laid-back dude with the same keen taste for arts it holds for gastronomy. Etcetera ad nauseam. More than just a few people start to learn languages not because of the language itself, but because the culture it came from offered something appealing to them–sometimes an actor or a movie, sometimes a book, sometimes a slice of pizza and a burning desire to eat it right of the forno in Italy.

When you hold matters to this light, it seems unsurprising Mexico’s native languages are unpopular. Think about it: if I say “Mayan”, most people will think “2012”, and if I say “Nahuatl”… well, I’m not sure what most people would think, but it’s probably not a flattering image. At least in Mexico, I think most people would think “poverty”: this is the result of the mass media’s effort to paint Mexico’s original inhabitants as collectively ignorant people, which is absolutely not true. The people that don’t think this might think “historic” (which is but a kind way to say “old”, and the polite alternative to “dated”).

With that kind of sales pitch, is it any wonder neither of these languages feels very chic?

As I mentioned before, both these languages have large, economically significant and productive communities. That these communities are forced to speak Spanish in order to stay afloat feels like a mini-repeat of how English has displaced other native languages.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for language change (a linguistic event during which a language changes its structure and vocabulary, generally through contact with other languages). Just like the human race, a language that doesn’t evolve is headed straight for extinction.

However, I think Mexico’s failing to tap into a large vein of productivity by not enabling the overwhelming Spanish-speaking majority to communicate with an otherwise linguistically isolated percentage of its population (and demanding that this very part of Mexico’s population leaves its dominant language behind in order to stay economically productive seems a brutal cultural brush-off). Both of these populations could benefit enormously from mutual cultural understanding. But how to enable Spanish speakers to learn these languages?

Why, by making them cool, of course.

Not long ago, I read an article on the launch of Baktún, a soap opera (I know, I know…) made in Mayan language with Spanish subtitles, which deals with the theme of losing one’s culture in order to stay afloat. It won’t air where I live, sadly, but the showing of contents produced for TV in these languages will at least increase their exposition, as well as show them less as linguistic dinosaurs and more as part of a nation’s culture (and as linguistic communities that have evolved accordingly).

Apparently, there are a few rock bands that compose in Nahuatl, too. Rather than force native language textbooks and dictionary onto people for no particularly good reason (and this has happened at least once in the past ten years), why not invite these groups to headline in one of Mexico’s many great music festivals?

Making these languages worth people’s interest would probably result in a much  bigger increase in demand than the pesimistic cry of ‘the tongues of our forefathers are dying‘ ever could. While I’m not sure it’ll happen in my lifetime, it would be nice to see a Mexico where people are interested in learning a language with speakers they’re sure to find in their own country.

  • Rojo ,

    Para pensar… muchos de los Mayas que rescatan su idioma y contribuyen a “formalizar” esta lengua a través de los medios establecidos por la cultura dominante, también hablan español, es decir, el maya no es su única lengua ni su única forma de expresarse. Me deja pensando que tal vez parte de las razones por las que el maya y el nahua ahora tienen más fuerza es justo porque han aprendido a crecer con el español y adaptarse a los nuevos públicos que se interesan por estas culturas originarias, para lo que es importante resaltar la importancia de saber más de un idioma para apreciar otros y para revalorar el propio como la principal forma de transmisión de la cultura.

    • Eriko ,

      Concuerdo con lo que dices. A veces un solo idioma no es suficiente para expresarse (si no pensara esto, no escribiría un blog en 3 idiomas!).

      Sin embargo el problema no es que las comunidades indigenas aprendan español, pues como dijiste sus idiomas se han adaptado a los tiempos junto con el español y ahora se difunden en canales originalmente pensados para la difusión en este idioma. Esto es algo muy bueno, porque indica que estos idiomas y sus comunidades están tratando de evolucionar de acuerdo a los tiempos.

      Lo que me preocupa no es que las poblaciones indígenas hablen español, sino que las comunidades nativamente hispanoparlantes no aprendan nahuatl/maya/mixe/tarasco/etc (lo que contribuiría a la perpetuación del ciclo de transmisión de cultura), y no necesariamente porque no quieran sino porque todos estos idiomas continúan siendo relativamente desconocidos dentro de su propio país. Por esto deseo que los pequeños esfuerzos que veo aquí y allá por llevar estos idiomas a una plataforma popular y moderna no sean, como quien dice, llamarada de petate.

    • Current Project: Nahuatl! | The Polyglotist ,

      […] It may come as no surprise to some that I am currently learning Nahuatl (along with, to a minor degree, Esperanto), at least considering this post.  […]

      • Loving Language ,

        Awesome post on an important subject. I tend to study less common languages and dialects. I spend most of my time on Somali, which suffers not from lack of press, but from overwhelming *bad* press. It is very hard to find materials.

        Here is a post, if you’re interested, about learning a minority dialect:

        Here’s one on what I called languages that play “hard to get”:

        What can you do to help the “press” of languages without a government effort behind them?

        • Sis L. ,

          Very interesting reads! It’s good to know other people are invested in learning the “lesser” languages. It is also hard to find learning resources for Mexico’s native tongues (it was pretty tough for me to find them when I was learning Nahuatl, the one with the most native speakers, so imagine what it’s like for all the other languages…), and people don’t understand one’s motivations to study them. I understand what that feels like.

          I’m afraid that all I’ve come up with so far to improve their “press” is word of mouth. It may sound like weak promotion but it works pretty well–after my Nahuatl project last year I’ve had a few people contact me (through word of mouth), interested in knowing where and how I found the materials I found. I can only hope these people will pass on their interest to other people.