Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Tue Aug 16 18:29:52 UTC 2005

CSUSM professor helps preserve Guatemalan language

By: DAVID GARRICK - Staff Writer 

SAN MARCOS ---- A group of women who lost their husbands and fathers  
two decades ago in Guatemala's violent civil war are one step closer to  
telling the world their stories thanks to help from a cultural  
linguistics professor at Cal State San Marcos.

The language skills of the women have atrophied over the years because  
they spend virtually all of their time providing sustenance for  
themselves in a remote village in the hills of Guatemala, but Cal State  
assistant professor Jule Gomez de Garcia helped secure a $160,000 grant  
this summer that will help change that.

Gomez de Garcia helped persuade the National Science Foundation to  
provide enough funds to allow the women to spend nine hours per week  
honing their speaking, reading and writing skills in Ixil, an  
endangered Mayan language. The aim is to preserve the language and to  
allow the women to tell the world what happened to them and what their  
lives are like today.

"These women know that people have heard about the genocide and  
atrocities, and they know that some don't believe," said Gomez de  
Garcia, who has visited the northern Guatemala village several times.  
"They really want to tell their stories."

A component of the grant project will be a Web site featuring voice and  
video files of narratives that will be provided by 30 women in the  
village. The multimedia database is part of the Documenting Endangered  
Languages project, a new multi-year effort to digitally archive 70  
at-risk languages before they become extinct.

Pat Worden, Cal State's interim vice president for student affairs,  
said this is exactly the type of project that the university encourages  
professors to tackle.

"One of our very important goals is having faculty involved in  
cutting-edge research," said Worden, who helped with the grant in her  
previous job as assistant vice president for research and international  
programs. "This project is a great example of the kind of research  
model we want here at Cal State."

Gomez de Garcia said the grant is already paying dividends, because the  
women have begun to study their language from 3 to 6 p.m. every Monday,  
Wednesday and Friday. This work comes after the women spend most of the  
day creating and selling traditional weavings and raising vegetables to  
sell at the local market.

"The women had been spending all their time on sustenance," said Gomez  
de Garcia, who joined the Cal State faculty in 2001. "They were  
refugees in the mountains who should have been learning to write, and  
because they didn't keep up the language, it has become endangered."

They have also realized that the world is bigger than they thought, and  
that the Internet will allow them to tell their stories to millions of  
people without leaving their small village, she said.

Gomez de Garcia, 54, said that it is crucial for native speakers of a  
language to preserve it themselves, without interference from others  
who might alter the language.

"Revitalization of a language can't come from outside," she said. "So  
we had to figure out the best way for them to do it themselves."

The grant will cover compensation for the audiovisual specialist who is  
creating the Web site and travel expenses for Gomez de Garcia and her  
two collaborators: Melissa Axelrod, a linguistics professor at the  
University of New Mexico, and Gomez de Garcia's daughter, Maria Luz  
Garcia, a graduate student at the University of Texas who has lived  
with the Guatemalan women on and off since 2001.

There are expected to be many thousands of dollars left over, and the  
women plan to buy something that will help sustain the group long-term,  
such as land or a business, Gomez de Garcia said.

Some people might not think it is a big deal to preserve endangered  
languages, Gomez de Garcia said, but languages help us understand how  
people live and how they think.

"Language is the window we have into how the mind works," she said.

Contact staff writer David Garrick at (760) 761-4410 or  
dgarrick at
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: text/enriched
Size: 4563 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <>

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list