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Language Barriers and Breakthroughs

Mostly, I’ve traveled to countries where I speak the language.

Many of these countries have English as their first or second language and those in the country who don’t speak English are forced to learn because of the increasing number of English-speaking tourists.

I’ve always believed that language is a powerful tool that can connect people and that can also enable each other to understand each other’s different perspectives, no matter how different their backgrounds may be.

I especially took this to heart this past Saturday and Sunday, living with a Maya family whose main language is Ixil. Cotzal, the town in which we stayed, attracts very few English-speaking tourists and the people therefore speak no English and very little Spanish.

I had never been challenged with such a thick language barrier and didn’t know what to think.

On my first night with Caterina (my host mom) and her 16-year-old daughter, Aimilee, I kept trying to think of ways to reach out to them, despite the language barrier.

I decided to share the few words I had learned in Ixil.

I was happy that they both became less shy and started talking and laughing with me. Although we spent most of the time laughing at my pronunciation, I felt I was able to establish a connection though language, however limited my language ability was. (Just in case you were wondering, maltiox means thank you very much and lej means tortilla, which are two of the most important words in the entire language in my opinion). Every time I said a word in Spanish that they could understand, they would say the word for it in Ixil and have me repeat it several times to help me further my vocabulary in Ixil. They were both very happy and impressed that I was taking the time to try and learn Ixil in the short time that I was there.

During this stay, language definitely helped me to connect with others but also to understand a culture that had previously seemed foreign to me.

On another note, I have also thought about what it might be like to not speak English but to have to immigrate to the United States to seek work opportunities. Many of these people are looking to get jobs so they can send the money home to their families. However, it is much harder to find work in a country where one does not speak the language. Unfortunately, in this case, language can also divide people and make some feel like outsiders, which is a sad truth for a country that was originally formed by immigrants.

Finally, I have become increasingly conscious of how English, being a colonial language, can establish a power dynamic. As English was a language that was forced on conquered populations, it became a symbol of status, power and wealth. Those who could speak English rose to the top of the social hierarchy and thus became wealthier and more influential in society because they were useful to the governments that took over and could communicate with both the conquered people and the new government.

Today, the ability to speak English is still a marker of power and I have seen how this has affected the way people interact with me. Many treat me with much more respect than they treat their other guests and I believe this is partially due to my English-speaking ability and US citizenship. Each family I have stayed with on this trip has told me that their goal is for their kids to learn English. They say this will open more doors for their kids in the future and will give them an advantage in society.

Currently, we are in San Juan la Laguna staying with host families, taking Spanish classes in the mornings and working on our Independent Study Projects in the afternoons. I have greatly enjoyed learning about the textile industry and how it has been impacted by tourism and am glad that I have not yet encountered a language barrier in my conversations with locals here. I am excited to continue learning about how the people are preserving a culture, one that is much older than my own, by continuing to teach the weaving process to the younger generations.

I look forward to returning home and sharing everything I have learned in my time here with family and friends.

– Amy Weinreich
(Photo credits to Raquel)