Indigenous Languages

By Laurraine Ishimwe

When I was a leader on Thursday, we went to San Lucas Toliman, a larger community on Lake Atitlán to the southeast of Cerro de Oro, in order to find our own lunch spot in groups and then explore the languages in the vicinity. We had to look around and find out how people from this part of Guatemala communicate, what type and how many languages they speak, and if they use Spanish more often than the Mayan languages.

While we were walking around town, I went into a local market to buy a gift for my dad, and the woman working there was wearing Mayan clothes. She was on the phone at first, and she was speaking in a different language that could have been Kaqchikel or Tz’utujil, because I am sure it wasn’t Spanish.

I thought that was interesting because in my country, Rwanda, most of the people speak at least two languages also. Most of the time it is French or English, but in the big city all kids can speak French, English and Kinyarwanda. Some people in the smaller towns speak Ingala or Kiswahili in addition to the first three. Advertisements, or signs on the roads, are in several different languages in Rwanda, just like here in Guatemala. It’s never just one language, just like when we went to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner in Santiago Atitlán and the menu had two languages: Spanish and English. 

In my country, some kids’ parents work a lot, and they don’t get to practice Kinyarwanda as much as they used to, and it is slowly getting lost. As I walked around San Lucas Toliman, I wondered if people here are losing a little bit of their Mayan languages, just like in Rwanda, because as the generations change some people don’t even want to teach their children anymore. Maybe they don’t have time, or maybe they are influenced by the government. One group’s investigation in a small private school learned that the government has been forcing the indigenous people to change their Mayan names to Latino ones, and learn Spanish only. Even though they do teach Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil at some private schools, the 22 Mayan languages are not being taught in all the schools in the country.

So far it has been fun going around and trying to talk to the people with my poor Spanish; I have been understanding a lot of the conversation around me. I enjoyed everything I saw and heard. It was interesting. I believe I would do it again 🙂

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