Monday, June 15, 2009

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.

So, why am I spending the summer in Zacatecas, Mexico? Two reasons. First, it has always been a long-term goal of mine to spend time abroad with my entire family (I am married with four children ages 3-10), especially in Spanish-speaking countries. Both my wife and I speak Spanish and have a love of hispanic culture; we have both had formative experiences living and traveling in Spanish-speaking countries (I in Mexico and Spain, my wife in Argentina) and desire similar exposure for our children. The kids are also in a bilingual elementary school program, which has been a very important part of their childhood experiences – learning in Spanish 80% of the day, making friends with Spanish-speaking kids, and learning about hispanic culture. So, for these reasons, living in Mexico for two months fits in with that larger plan.

The second reason is related to my professional development. VERY long story short: in addition to working as a history/art history teacher at Rivers, in the 4-5 years since completing my masters program at Harvard I have been conducting independent research in early colonial Mexican history, with a focus on the ethnohistory of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico (otherwise known as the Aztecs), in particular the way in which indigenous peoples understood and adapted to the introduction of Catholicism in the 16th-17th centuries. Getting even more specific than that, I have been learning to read what is called Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people which was adopted by the Spanish as a second language of colonial administration. My goal is to be able to translate and analyze some of the massive corpus of colonial-era Nahuatl-language documentation that sits in archives and libraries around the world unused by scholars because so few know the language. This summer I will be attending an intensive immersion course in Nahuatl, both Classical and one of the modern dialects still spoken today (Nahuatl is the indigenous language spoken by the largest number of Mexicans today, approx. 2 million people). During the week I will be attending classes at the local university in Zacatecas. I will spend two hours in the morning learning to speak Nahuatl with native speakers, two hours in classroom instruction in the older, “Classical” Nahuatl, and one hour one-on-one working with a tutor on a project of my choosing.

In my next post, I will explain in more detail why the study of Nahuatl has been such an important part of my professional growth and I will also introduce you to my current translation project. Stay tuned!

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