The Curious Case of Indigenous Trilingualism: Learning English in Chalchihuitán

by multilingualmania on September 23, 2010

in bilingual teachers, Indigenous Languages, second language acquisition, Trilingualism

Bienvenido a ChiapasIn April, I traveled with my friend Paola to Chalchihuitán, a rural indigenous community just outside my adopted home of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. Paola teaches English at the local high school, which has only been in existence for a little over two years. “What did they do before they built the high school?” I asked her. “Simple,” she replied. “They didn’t go.” That’s right, Paola has the amazing opportunity of preparing this community’s first generation of high school graduates and I had the pleasure of being their native English speaking practice partner. As we drove through the stunning highlands of Chiapas I could barely contain my excitement; I’d never been so thrilled just to chat with a bunch of teens.

I sat in on three of Paola’s English classes, which ranged from newbies mastering the basics of “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “How are you?” to upper intermediate students who were eager to discuss American culture, my take on “Grey’s Anatomy” and whether or not I had a boyfriend. The students were shy, of course, and nervous to practice in front of a “real life” English speaker, so I didn’t pay much attention to the long pauses that came before and after each question and response. However, on our way back to the city, Paola explained why these extra delays weren’t always about nerves.

Just as I took Spanish to fulfill my high school’s foreign language requirements, the students in Chalchihuitán take English, like it or not, for the same reason. Yet, there is a major difference between my foreign language experience and theirs. While Spanish is my second language, English is their third. And not only that: the kids in Chalchihuitán are native speakers of Tzotzil, a Mayan language passed down for centuries by the original inhabitants of Mexico. This explains the delay. As we were chatting, they were translating each word twice, from English to Spanish to Tzotzil: not an easy feat as the Tzotzil alphabet, phonetics, and grammar are wildly different than both Spanish and English.

As a result, it’s impossible to parallel my language learning experience with theirs; I learned Spanish using my first language while they are trying to master English using their second. And though I certainly knew quite a few ESL students in my high school who moved on to study French or German using English as a base, even that is an unfair comparison. Growing up in a remote mountain pueblo like Chalchihuitán, most young people have little to no Spanish exposure until their first day of primary school, which sometimes may not be until they are 7 or 8 years old. When school ends, quite a few head back to homes where Spanish isn’t spoken; even their opportunities to practice their second language are limited to the few hours they are in school every week. And it shows. By high school, most students are still struggling with Spanish and few are lucky enough to have Tzotzil speaking teachers to help them work out basic grammar.

Consequently what is a challenge for the Chalchihuitán students in Spanish is an impossibility in English. And forget the free “study aides” (television, internet, native speaking friends, and English language businesses) that minority language students have in the United States. When you live in a rural community in Mexico, the majority language is utilized out of necessity, not habit. Spanish is spoken during school hours but as soon as the bell rings, the kids immediately begin chattering away in Tzotzil.

Unfortunately, not many teachers are as committed as my friend Paola, who has taken the time to know and understand the community where she works. Most English teachers in communities like Chalchihuitán lead their classes as they would with a group of mestizo kids in San Cristóbal. It doesn’t help that there is a complete lack of resources on teaching a foreign language to indigenous youth still trying to master Spanish. Yet, now that she has a good feel for teaching in Spanish, Paola is committed to learning Tzotzil so she can help close the gap between her students’ first and second language, which she hopes will accelerate their English learning. For now, she is developing her master’s thesis on teaching English to indigenous students, which will be one of only a few studies of its kind.

As for me, my experience in Chalchihuitán opened my eyes to a unique set of challenges facing bilingual students in rural indigenous communities. I couldn’t help but fall in love with these incredible kids who are so enthusiastic about learning English, challenges and all. Today, I travel to Chalchihuitán several times a week, where I lead a theater class for a dozen of those amazing high school girls. Despite our many differences, we now have a little bit more in common as, together, we stumble through scene study in Spanish, our shared second language. And, they don’t know it yet, but by the end of the year they will be acting in English, too!

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason West September 27, 2010 at 1:36 am

Thanks for this artcle Rachel. Did Paola explain why she thought this “As we were chatting, they were translating each word twice, from English to Spanish to Tzotzil”? I would have expected them to translate using their first language.

Jason West September 27, 2010 at 1:38 am

Sorry ‘Rachael’, oops!

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