Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back in the classroom

This summer, Rivers teachers are embarking on a variety of activities through the school’s faculty enrichment grants, which aim to promote the intellectual growth of Rivers teachers through research, education, and other independent projects. Today, we hear from Ben Leeming, who is traveling to Zacatecas, Mexico to study the Uto-Aztecan language of Nahuatl.

I have begun to develop a morning routine which includes leaving the house around 8:00, making the 10 minute walk to the Institute (grabbing a coffee along the way…still haven’t found a good place and am refusing to be drawn to the one Star Bucks – that’s how they write it – in Zacatecas). When I get to the institute I am usually the first one there so the place is quiet and I can attend to the daily batch of emails – or update the blog – before my 9:00 class. Speaking of classes, this is how my typical day is shaping up:

8-something – 9:00 email

9:00-11:00 beginning modern Huastecan Nahuatl

11:00-12:00 tutoring (one-one-one session with Sabina, from Veracruz and a native Nahuatl speaker)

12:30-1:45 home for lunch and playing with the kids

2:00-4:00 beginning classical Nahuatl (the form of Nahuatl used in the 16th – 18th centuries, and the form used in the documents I study and translate)

4:30-5:45 home for dinner and playing with the kids

6:00-8:00 intermediate/advanced classical Nahuatl

8:30 home for bedtime (the kids', that is...)

Classes are going well, but 7 hours a day is a lot! (Not to mention approximately an hour of walking to and from the Institute!) As far as the modern class, learning a new language is hard work. It’s awkward, difficult, and my tongue often ends up in a knot. I feel like an elementary school student all over again. But it is fun, and the native-speaking instructors are really good. Their methodology is TPR (total physical response) which basically means you act everything out and there is very little (if any) “traditional” blackboard teaching. I am getting a feel for the ins and outs of pronouncing Nahuatl words – very different in many cases from English or Spanish – and in some cases pretty similar. I am saying things like, “quena” (yes) and “axcanah” (no), “queniuhqui tiitztoc” (how are you?), “ximoquetza” (stand up!) and “ximocehui” (sit down!) as well as the colors: “xoxoctic” (green), “chichiltic” (red – related to the word “chilli” as in red chili pepper), and “chipahuac” (white).

I just had my first oral test. It basically consisted of half a dozen spoken questions for which I had to produce responses in Nahuatl. I don’t think I have had an oral assessment since high school so I bumbled a couple of the questions. (Something tells me that they won’t flunk me out of the program, though…)

Back to the classes: I was initially skeptical of the “need” to learn to speak a modern dialect of Nahuatl since my pursuits will rarely take me past my office, a library or perhaps an archive somewhere. However, the philosophy of this program’s director is gradually beginning to sink in and make sense to me. If one learns only the archaic form of the language, one has only ONE lense through which to view that language. However, if one learns more than one variant of the language, one has another lense, and therefore is equipped with a broader perspective and is able to make more nuanced conclusions. The Nahuatl spoken today in the region of Mexico known as the Huasteca (basically the state of Veracruz) is one of the oldest or least changed dialects of Nahuatl. But it IS different in some important respects. By being able to compare the older Nahuatl with the Nahuatl that is spoken today, someone like me has (or will have) a much richer understanding of how that language works, how it evolves and has evolved over time, etc.

Another huge benefit from learning the language from native speakers is this: all that we know about pronunciation of classical Nahuatl comes from written descriptions recorded by the Spanish priests and friars who were the first non-native linguists to study Nahuatl. In the case of one major grammarian, Horacio Carrochi, when trying to describe exactly how to pronounce a difficult sound, he is forced to write, “I can’t explain how to pronounce this word. You have to hear a native speaker say it.” For anyone studying Nahuatl in the isolation of a classroom in the States or Europe, one is left to wonder, but for us, my teacher can simply SAY the word and I can hear for myself exactly what it sounds like (at least in the modern dialect…which in most cases we are pretty sure is similar in sound).

As for the classes in classical (older) Nahuatl, these are my favorite times of the day. The beginning class is definitely “too easy” for me, but I am attending anyway because the instructor, John Sullivan – US born and educated scholar – is a vast wealth of knowledge about the language and I am learning SO MUCH even about the “basics”. As for the advanced class, the approach is not quite as structured as the beginning, and we use primary source documents to delve into the more complex aspects of the language. This is where I am most happy and comfortable. We are currently working though a 17th cent. document from Tlaltenago (south of here in the state of Zacatecas) which was written by the Nahua elders to the bishop in Zac. city (where I am now) complaining about their priest and asking for a new one. It seems that this priest, one Salvador Hernández, didn’t speak Nahuatl very well and cared more for his Caxtilteca (spanish) parishoners than his Nahuatl-speaking ones. So we basically take the translation line by line, and wrestle with it as a group. This is what I love to do most. And it looks like I am the most experienced member of this class, aside from our Profe, of course. Being the most advanced learner is good for the ego, but it also means that I am not quite as challenged as I would otherwise be (maybe) and I am hoping that it will get harder. But I am still learning A TON and it feels really good to be immersed in the language I love so much. I am hoping to be able to spend some one on one time with Prof. Sullivan working through some of the problem passages in Molina I know that this will be extremely helpful.

Final comment: having a trilingual learning experience is great, but exhausting. Classes are conducted entirely in Nahuatl and Spanish (for the modern) and Nahuatl, Spanish, and English (but barely!) for the classical. I often feel like an alien trying to speak a new language, when I speak both Spanish and Nahuatl, but I can hear my Spanish gradually improving. My Nahuatl, on the other hand…ask me at the end of the summer.

So, things are going well from my angle. I’m so glad to be here and am trying to soak up as much of life in Mexico as possible.

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