Views from the ANThill: Learning Language, Using Anthropology

The Punta Gorda Branch Library - a budding community center and host to a new series of
Indigenous language classes. Photo courtesy of doug reeser.
by douglas reeser on April 13, 2012
I think of myself as an anthropologist. My primary efforts in the field are designed to provide insight into human behavior, particularly in the realm of health and illness. There is also another side to what I do here, work that is distinctly applied anthropology. I come out of a program that has an applied focus, where we are urged to work for positive change in our host communities. My applied work is not directly tied to my research; however, it is a direct result of my being an anthropologist. I do not think of myself as being the source of action here, rather I see my work as more facilitation. Let me explain.

Language is one of the core foundations of culture. As anthropologists and scholars, we know this; and yet around the globe, languages are being lost at an alarming rate. In Belize, there are still a number of indigenous languages in use, but little data is available on their health and vitality. My research is not specifically about language, and most of my research is done in English, so I am not faced with language issues on a regular basis. Still, the applied aspect of my work in the field is directly related to the local indigenous languages.

I am working in Punta Gorda (PG), the largest town in the southern-most district of Belize. This is home to the regional market, the primary hub of health care and other services, and where Kriol and English are the primary languages heard on the streets. Schools are taught in English, and living in an ethnically diverse town such as PG, people tend to turn to English or Belizean Kriol as a common language. Still there are also speakers of the indigenous languages of the region – Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya, and Garifuna – however, these languages are heard less often. From my time spent here, coupled with my anthropological observations, it appears that the longer a family has been settled in PG, the more likely they are to speak Kriol and/or English, and the less likely they are to speak the indigenous languages known and spoken by the elders. This is especially true of the youth.

My research involves working with multiple ethnic groups, and so the varied language usage throughout the community quickly caught my attention. I noticed bits and pieces of indigenous language here and there, and a definite interest in those languages was expressed by locals and foreigners alike, but there was no means of learning or preserving their use. So after nearly eight months in the field, the congruence of three unique events enabled me to put together one of my applied projects.

The first event took place a few months ago at a dinner party for a local expatriate’s birthday. I was invited by one of my research contacts who thought I would enjoy mingling with others from the U.S. After talking with a few people, I was introduced to the head librarian at the small but active PG library. A young Garifuna woman, born and raised in PG, Elzena was bright-eyed and passionate about her work. She expressed her disappointment in the younger people in town for their apathy and at the difficulty she faced in getting people interested in their town and history. She talked of her desire to make the library a center of community activity with programs and outreach for the youth and adults of PG, and invited me to some of the upcoming talks to be held there.

Nothing much happened for a while after I first met Elzena. I attended a couple of talks at the library, one that included a traditional Garifuna ceremony, and another by crystal skull expert, Daryl Capps. Then Jill, an old friend with whom I have worked on a few projects here in PG, brought up the idea of language classes. She had put on a couple of classes a few years ago, and they were well attended; however, she had to pay out of pocket for the space to hold the classes and to compensate the teachers. Consequently, she was only able to offer three classes, one each of Q'eqchi', Garifuna and Mopan. People were still asking about the classes though, and there seemed to be a renewed interest – especially in the expat/NGO community – to learn a bit of the local indigenous languages.

Just a couple of weeks later, the third piece of the project appeared. One of my primary research informants, with whom I had worked for the last 6 months, noted in passing that he was teaching Q'eqchi' Maya to students at the rural Tumul K’in Center of Learning. It was a part-time job, only taught once per week, but he went on to reveal his interest in the preservation of indigenous languages. Thomas has been trained in the formal use of Q'eqchi', and is one of the few people in PG who know standardized spellings of Q'eqchi' words, and how to teach the language according to recognized standards. He has worked for a number of researchers as an interpreter and translating interview transcripts, and he told me of his desire to start a language institute.

By now all of the pieces were in place. I put together meetings with Thomas, Jill and Elzena, and we brainstormed on how to get a language program started. We agreed to use the library as the host for a new series of language classes, and Thomas would put together the lesson plans for the first 5-week series of beginner’s Q'eqchi'. However, the one issue we faced was the ever-challenging problem of funding. We could not depend on volunteer teachers and we would need a small amount of supplies, but we were without a funding source.

A bit of anthropological ingenuity came in handy here. At my urging, we decided to charge a small fee for the sessions, and advertise the first series to the large expatriate and NGO community in town. Even a small turn-out for the classes would raise enough to give a stipend to the teachers. We designed the fees in such a way that they would also go towards a summer program for youth at the library – free indigenous language classes!

Our first session is scheduled to start at the beginning of May. We have already received a good deal of interest and support, and are discussing if we need to bring a second teacher into the mix in case the class grows too large. The classes are affordable, both for locals and foreigners, and will allow people to learn a new language – or one they’ve been hearing for much of their lives. The program will also expose the local youth to the languages of their elders with the free program during the summer months when there is not much else for youth to do in town. Through spending time getting to know my host community, I was able to make connections of ideas, people and resources. This is applied anthropology.

This article also appeared in the April 2012 Anthropology News.
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  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    What a great idea. Glad to hear you were able to implement the program. All the best in its success.

  2. sounds so good :>


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