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 nctimes.com.
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