In Guatemala, 24 languages are spoken including Spanish, 21 Mayan languages and two non-Mayan dialects. Before coming to Guatemala, I knew that Mayan languages existed and that K’iche’ is one of the most commonly spoken languages. What I did not know is that you can travel 20 minutes to a different department and speak an entirely different language and even the same Mayan language may be slightly different from one town to the next.
Peace Corps Guatemala requires that all volunteers take a minimum of 20 hours of the Mayan language that is spoken in their site and encourages all volunteers to take an additional 140 hours. After looking for a Kaqchikel teacher for over three weeks, I finally found one and started taking classes on Wednesday. The reason it took me so long to find a teacher is that all of the people I asked only knew teachers who live in Chimaltenango and Comalapa. Although Kaqchikel is spoken in the departments of Chimaltenango, Sololá, Sacatepéquez, and Guatemalata, it changes from department to department and even between cities. Although Chimaltenango and Comalapa are only 30-40 minutes away, they speak Kaqchikel differently than in my site.
Before starting classes I was told that it is easier for an English speaker to learn Kaqchikel than a Spanish speaker because our two languages share a lot of similar sounds. Whoever told me that is crazy! Every Wednesday and Thursday, I head over to my teacher’s house for two hours of trying (and failing) to mimic the noises that come out of my teacher’s mouth. The most difficult part of Kaqchikel is the pronunciation of the Mayan glottalized consonants which are indicated by an apostrophe (b’, ch’, k’, q’, t’, tz’). These consonants are pronounced similar to regular consonants except are pronounced more forcefully, from the back of your throat and with a short stop similar to the word uh-oh.
Kaqchikel in my Community
My second or third day in site, as I was sitting on the camioneta (bus) coming back from the market, I remember being surprised by the fact that not one person around me was speaking in Spanish. I knew that my community had a large Kaqchikel population, but my host family does not speak the language so I didn’t notice at first. Most people who speak Kaqchikel in my town can also speak Spanish and they switch languages based on who they are talking to. I have noticed that older people generally prefer to speak in Kaqchikel and the students mostly speak in Spanish unless they don’t want me to know what they are talking about.
Don Rogelio, my coworker at the Health Center, explained to me that he grew up in a bilingual household where both his parents could speak Kaqchikel and Spanish. However, his mom always felt more comfortable speaking Kaqchikel so she would speak to him and his sisters in Kaqchikel. His sisters would respond to their mom in Kaqchikel and he always used to reply in Spanish. Although he could understand Kaqchikel, he could never really speak it. When he got married, his mother in law could only speak Kaqchikel so he was forced to learn how to speak in order to communicate with her. Now, Don Rogelio’s has two daughters ages 2 and 9. His older daughter speaks and understands both Kaqchikel and Spanish but only speak in Kaqchikel with her grandma. His younger daughter is learning to speak in Kaqchikel and Spanish at the same time. I imagine his experience is very similar to someone who grew up in a bilingual household in the United States, but it is fascinating to me considering the my mom struggled to learn “merci” and “gracias” when she came to visit me in Spain.
Although I doubt I will become fluent in Kaqchikel, I really enjoy learning the language and it helps with community integration. While observing an English class last week, I told the students how I was going to start Kaqchikel classes and was met with a round of applause!