Topic: If you could wake up tomorrow and be fluent in any language you don’t currently speak, which would it be? Why? What’s the first thing you do with your new linguistic skills?
Very tough question, but I’ll go with the first thing that popped into my mind: Quechua, a language that will probably never be offered on Rosetta Stone or other main-stream language learning programs, perhaps because there is not enough big-business associated with it. (Mining, primarily by Canadian and other multinational corporations, is very prevalent in the Andes regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Argentina, where Quechua is spoken. Many Quechua speakers know at least basic Castellano/Spanish as it is the most widely used language).
After living in Peru for six months, it was impossible not to run into a bit of the language, even though I was far away from the Andes region where it is most prevalent. It is still spoken in a mountainous communities in the Department of Lambayeque, but I was on the far end of it, near the coast. Quechua was one of two language options when I phoned my cell phone provider (Movistar). Some street names around the coastal city of Chiclayo were borrowed from Quechua.
Quechua is complex and has long words (like German, words are ‘added together’). It is pleasant to hear. My host mother, originally from Cuzco, would sometimes say things in Quechua; she learned basics as a young girl to be able to converse with vendors at markets. She loved singing along to songs in Quechua on the radio or her CDs and happily taught me basic greetings and numbers (I really should brush up on them…).
Out of curiosity, while travelling in the Sacred Valley of the Inca (near Cuzco), I asked a taxi driver if kids in public schools have the option to learn Quechua in school. His response: while most natives of the region speak Quechua at home, they study in Spanish, and English is the only second language option; Quechua is “not useful” in the region’s job market as tourism is the main industry, so why bother teaching it at school? (I sighed…colonization and globalization and capitalism are so internalized…).
Back in Chiclayo, while offering an English class to students in Project Chiclayo, something amusing and quite appropriate to the situation occurred one morning when the owner of the home in which we did classes walked in and heard us practicing English. A kindhearted and loving father who came from the Andean mountains to work in Chiclayo, he still remembers some Quechua. As a bit of a joke –or to make a good point– he lightly chuckled at the English phrases I was teaching the kids, saying it was a difficult language and not necessarily useful to them (to a degree he was right; tourism is far less present in Chiclayo as compared to Cuzco, but in the short term, they need to pass English as a course at school). Suddenly, he put me on the spot: he asked me if I knew any Quechua. At that point, I only knew a few words so I admitted that I did not. He then started pointing to things in the room and saying their name in Quechua and the kids, of course, chimed in like parrots, giggling at the interruption. A good five minutes of the session passed. We all enjoyed the break and it was a great reminder that one of my goals was to learn some Quechua and that these kids should have the chance to learn it in schools or in workshops.
Some TV programs highligh Peru’s diverse cultures with traditional and modern songs written in Quechua, sung by children or professionals. Quechua was present in national singing competitions such ‘La Voz‘ (The Voice) and ‘Perú Tiene Talento‘ (Peru’s got Talent). Sometimes singers would translate Castellano lyrics into Quechua. Other performers sang half of the verses in Castellano and half in Quechua. The most recent winner of La Voz in December 2013 did a fabulous interpretation of ‘Ojos Azules‘ (Blue Eyes) in both Castellano and Quechua. Given the ongoing battle to respect and uphold the teaching of Indigenous languages, seeing pop singers proudly sing in Peru’s 2nd most spoken language on national television was neat. Daniel Lazo share a famous quote prior to singing: ‘Los hombres que no recuerdan de dónde vienen no saben a dónde van‘ (‘Those who do not remember where they come from don’t know where they are going’)…
This was not the performance (that link was take down, but it is a good recording sponsored by El Comercio, a major newspaper)
If I were suddenly fluent in Quechua, I’d have an even stronger desire to return to Peru and then visit other South American countries, especially Bolivia. I’d become more involved with social programs and visit rural areas where I would chat with strangers and new friends for long hours. It would be fascinating to learn about their past, beliefs, cultural practices, meals, places, daily lives. I’d happily be an interpreter if asked (Spanish/English/French), although knowing the language would leave a gaping hole in terms of my knowledge of Andean cultures, that I would then come to know better through the language…full circle.
A line from my host mother (in my rough phonetic ‘lingo’, accents meaning to just stress that syllable):
Tákay key súnchis, áma wácaspaya
Roughly: ‘we sing without crying‘, or ‘sing, don’t cry‘,
as in ‘don’t worry and don’t be sad, but let out your joy’.