The Will to Plasticity

Brains, culture, and language learning

So You Want to Learn an Endangered Language...

A book about learning Yucatec Maya offers an enlightened look at what's involved

If you've ever wondered what it might be like to go out and learn one of those endangered languages you're always hearing about, you might want to read Maya for Travelers and Students: A Guide to Language and Culture in Yucatán, written by Gary Bevington, a linguist, and published in 1995 by the University of Texas Press, which is also one of the best language learning books I've ever read. I discovered it in a gift shop at Chichén Itzá five years ago, when my wife and I were on a long road trip in the Yucatán and I became interested in Yucatec Maya (or simply "Maya," if you're in the Yucatán); I rediscovered it recently while unpacking some boxes.

Maya is spoken by a million or so people on the peninsula, in Belize, and in northern Guatemala, and as we traveled, we notice it everywhere: in the markets, the hotels, even written on the plaques at Mayan ruins, along with Spanish and English. But that written form told me nothing about the people who use it today or what it would be like for me, a white American, to try to learn it.

Bevington's book is refreshing, honest, sophisticated, and friendly, and it will tell you much of what you're getting into trying to learn a language used by people in what he calls a "small-scale culture." The book is really about language in context, and about the intercultural mechanics of trying to get to both. The first chapter, "Learning Indigenous Languages," is devoted to these challenges, starting with the reminder that you are, despite your passions and good intentions, disruptive. "Remember that from the native perspective you are an odd thing that dropped from the sky into the middle of their well-ordered and busy world. You are disruptive and confusing because people of your ilk are expected to be remote and generally disdainful of their world," he writes. He's also very stern about motives. "Remember that traditional Maya engage in binge drinking," he writes, "…If you see such things as 'evils' in need of your attention, then I would urge you to restrict your activities to looking at the pyramids." (He's very aware that his book has the potential to be misused by Christian missionaries and artifact hunters, whom he disdains.)

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The book has the requisite sections on grammar, phonology, and words, but Bevington has written them in such a friendly way to both learners and Maya speakers, it's as if he's trying, with this book, to broker the exchanges that will inevitably happen between learners and speakers. Don't expect to find a single invariant "correct" pronunciation, he writes; "it's important to note there is a substantial amount of variation in pronunciation even within a small Mayan speech community." Want to find people to talk to? Build relationships. Give people rides in your car. Keep coming back. "Our tendency is to want to go at things in a concentrated, expeditious manner, and this is, in this case, exactly the wrong way of doing things."

Bevington himself learned Maya by living in and around Maya communities, many summers in a camper pick-up. This made him so thoroughly localist that he downplays his own expertise, which is not humility as much as the most ethical epistemological position, under the circumstances: "Just because some 'expert' (including me) says things work in a particular way does not make it true," he writes.

Then there's the section on language and managing conversation, asking someone to slow down, and so forth. Because many Maya speakers may speak some Spanish, and if the learner does too, there's a temptation to move back and forth, but Bevington warns that "talking about language is an unfamiliar activity for ordinary Maya." They also don't normally relate Maya to Spanish because "their world is compartmentalized in ways that make it unnecessary." Bevington gives the useful tip that knowing that when you ask about Maya verbs, asking for them in the Spanish infinitive is "risky and confusing" because Maya doesn’t have an equivalent form. People are also unfamiliar with having strangers speak Maya, so are unused to accommodating pronunciations. Here's where having the best pronunciation you can matters. "Your having a horrendous accent when you pronounce Maya is just going to be one more reason for their not playing the game of helping the tsu'ulo'ob [strangers] learn the language."

What he also stresses is that if you use Maya, you will inevitably use Spanish, too, which has strongly influenced Maya. (You can't learn one without the other, either. "If you don't know any Spanish for traveling, then you don't have any business starting Maya yet," Bevington writes). This will probably be the case with many minority languages around the world. "You cannot speak intelligible Maya and talk about any real range of topics, even about the Maya world," he writes, "without using Spanish words." You may be approached by people who want to save you from "mestizo Maya" and teach you "maya puro," but this language is a fiction, and using it "will make you unintelligible to speakers of Maya." Bevington provides a useful rule of thumb for flushing out the puro maya pedant: "If the person has Maya equivalents for such things as 'good morning,' 'friend,' and 'tape recorder,' or can give you numbers above four, then you've got a pedant."

In the course of talking about Babel No More, I've been asked a number of times why we don't set hyperpolyglots and other language enthusiasts onto endangered languages. Wouldn't that go a long way toward solving the problem? Bevington's book goes a long way toward explaining why there's more involved….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Erard, Ph.D., writes about language, languages, and the people who use and study them.

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