Monday, September 27, 2010

Cayacklii nieae dixzaa

The title of this post means, "I am learning Zapotec". I have to admit I have not learned that much yet; in fact in order to write that title I just asked my Zapotec teacher to tell me how to say that phrase via gmail chat, and I have only a vague idea of how to pronounce it. Good thing my Zapotec teacher has gmail chat. But hopefully soon I will know enough to come up with a phrase like that on my own.

I found my new Zapotec teacher through couchsurfing, as I have found most of the people I know here. He is from a town called Teotitlan del Valle, which is about a 45 minute bus ride from Oaxaca when there are no roadblocks caused by protests (which there all too often are). The first time I visited the town I fell in love; I decided it would be the perfect place to become involved with the school and try and volunteer once a week. Apart from being absolutely gorgeous, it has a strong weaving culture; woven items are the main market commodity, and almost everyone there knows how to weave, men and women alike. Here is my Zapotec teacher and tour guide posing in front of some of he and his mom's weavings: In addition, the town has kept the Zapotec language alive to a larger extent than other towns in the vicinity of Oaxaca. According to the 2000 census, a majority of the people there are bilingual in Spanish and Zapotec (that has probably changed somewhat by now as the weavers become more and more involved with the outside world and Spanish becomes more and more dominant).

So, I went to the town's primary school and talked to the director about the possibility of volunteering there once a week. I haven't gotten an official response yet, but the director seemed to like the idea. Most likely, I will be giving an "English workshop" to a different group of kids every week. I haven't completely formulated yet what I would want to do in these workshops, but I would want them to somehow incorporate the Zapotec language (maybe create some games and activities that involve both English and Zapotec words), try to give the Zapotec-speaking kids a chance to be my "teachers", and in some way or another get the most important message across: "YOUR native language is important too! And there are people who want to learn it!" I told the director I wanted to do "English workshops", but really I think the most important part of my work would be just that, sending the message that ALL languages are important and enriching to learn. In ten years the kids probably will not have retained much English from my one-hour workshop--maybe a couple words--but maybe what will stick with them will be the memory of someone coming to their school from the United States who wanted to learn THEIR language. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

So my lessons in "Zapoteco del Valle" (as opposed to "Zapoteco de la Sierra", the dialect I was learning before) have commenced. It has very little in common with the first dialect of Zapotec I was learning, except it's also really hard. The pronunciations are such that I usually can't even figure out how to write words down phonetically so I'll remember them. The main issue is that Zapotec is a tonal language (Paci, you and Wikipedia were right)--so basically it's about as hard to learn as Chinese, except without the characters. A funny anecdote from today: I was making a list of food vocabulary, and realized that the word for "chicken soup" is "shu-beédxi" and the word for egg is "sut-beédxi". My teacher said that was because "beédxi" is chicken. My first reaction was alarm: "Why in the world is the word 'chicken' in the middle of the word 'egg'?! There is no chicken in eggs!" OK, so in my defense, the word in Spanish for chicken the food is different for the one for chicken the animal, so having my teacher tell me that chicken the food was in eggs might have been what threw me off. Also, I have never seen a language where the word "chicken" is embedded in the word "egg" (though it makes sense, doesn't it?). Speak up if you know of another. Apparently the literal meaning of the word "egg" is "bone of chicken", though in a different Zapotec dialect it means "son of chicken".

Yesterday, I also had a nice long talk with one of the directors of CMPIO, the Oaxacan Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promotors, which is right here in the city. The organization is part civic association, part labor union, and partly supported by the SEP (Mexican Department of Education). The main goal of the group is to "recuperate" indigenous languages and cultures (the word "preserve" in this context is becoming politically incorrect, since languages and cultures are by nature not stagnant things) by developing pedagogy for bilingual schools (schools in which students and teachers use both Spanish and a native language). Unfortunately, the SEP currently only has one national curriculum that applies to all schools in Mexico, whether or not they are bilingual-- which makes it difficult for bilingual schools with alternative pedagogies to be recognized and funded as public schools. However, CMPIO has made a few important strides, including what the director considered the two most important projects: "segundarias comunitarias" and "nidos de lengua".

Segundarias comunitarias are high schools that use an alternative bilingual curriculum, in which the learning originates from the town itself, rather than being imposed by the outside world. In other words, students learn through the lens of their own culture and language, rather than being taught assimilation. The first two years incorporate various community projects and interviews with people in the community. The third year includes an investigative project within the community. From what I understand, there is some kind of complex situation in which these community schools are recognized as public by the state of Oaxaca but not the federal government. Unfortunately, the closest "segundaria comunitaria" is about a 3- or 4-hour trip from Oaxaca, the farthest being about 12 hours away. But I do hope to visit one sometime.

The second project, "nidos de lengua", means "language nests". This was a phenomenon that began in Australian aborigine communities, in which the elders realized that their language was disappearing because children were no longer being taught to speak it. It is a strategy that is ideally for kids between the ages of 1 and 6 years old, in which "nests" of 10 or 20 kids are formed in which they are spoken to all day in the native language by language "guides", who can be community elders or younger community members trained in bilingual pedagogy. It is essentially a total immersion experience designed to make the children bilingual and in this way retain more of their community's culture and history. In order to make the "nido" effective, the parents of the children are also encouraged to speak to their children in the native language at home, although this is very difficult because many of the parents only speak Spanish. CMPIO is holding a two-day workshop on "nidos de lengua" in October, which I am thinking of observing.

Although I find the idea of "nidos de lengua" interesting, I can't help but wonder how well it works for the kids in them, and how well it will work in the long run. In Oaxaca, kids as old as 10 are sometimes thrown into the nidos. That makes it more of a second language-learning program than a preschool immersion experience. I'm all for recuperating native cultures, but I have to wonder if an indigenous 10-year-old, on the cusp of his or her teenage years and experiencing a ton of pressure from the increasingly ubiquitous Spanish media to conform to mestizo social norms, would be all that thrilled about being made to learn an indigenous language that is only spoken by elders. Unfortunately, in Mexico there is a lot of prejudice against indigenous people and people who speak indigenous languages, which accounts for most of the reason the languages are dying out. Some people would argue that it is good that indigenous people are learning Spanish and participating more in mestizo society. After all, it gives them much more power in the society as a whole. I partly agree with that argument, but I also think it's not necessary for the native languages to be lost. Consider the example of the Catalán language in Barcelona. Just about everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but signs are still written in Catalán, not because the Catalán language is necessary for any official business, but because of the cultural pride of the Catalán people. Languages only die out when people stop valuing them. And to me, every language is valuable because embedded in the language are certain cultural beliefs and perspectives that might not exist anywhere else. In order for indigenous languages to survive in Mexico, it is not only necessary for the government to start supporting bilingual programs, but for both mestizos and indigenous people to be re-educated and learn to value of native cultures. It will require a lot of work, but I don't think it's impossible.

As for my "real" work --what Fulbright is actually paying me for-- I finally started assistant teaching classes at the Tec a few days ago, usually for 3 or 4 hours a day. It is a lot of fun, and I am realizing that I actually enjoy working with college students a lot more than I liked working with first graders, for the most part (dammit, that might complicate my career path). Most of the students only have a very basic knowledge of English even if they are technically in level 2 or 3 (the fact that they are allowed to take a year off in between level 1 and level 2 probably partly accounts for this). So far in the classes, I have mostly been introducing myself in English, then having the students try to ask me simple questions about myself and asking them questions about themselves. They tend to be shy, but fun. The top questions so far:
"Are you married?"
"Haha, no."
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"I don't feel like answering that. Ask me later." (collective laugh)
"Do you drink?"
"No, never!!" (collective laugh) "Well, OK, sometimes."
"Do you like mezcal?"
"Do you like chapulines (crickets)?"
"No! They are the only Oaxacan food I don't like."

In future classes I hope to collaborate a little more with the professors and have some of my own activities and/or a presentation planned, but for now, I am having fun getting to know the students.

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