Topic: If you could wake up tomorrow and be fluent in any language you don’t currently speak, which would it be? Why? What’s the first thing you do with your new linguistic skills?
This is a very tough question, but I’ll go with the first thing that popped into my mind: Quechua, a language that will probably never be offered on Rosetta Stone or other main-stream language learning programs, perhaps because there is not enough big-business associated with it. (Mind you, mining is certainly very prevalent in the Andes regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Argentina, where Quechua is spoken, although many Quechua speakers know at least basic Castellano/Spanish as it is the most widely-spoken language in those countries).
After living in Peru for six months, it was impossible not to run into a bit of the language, even though I was far away from the Andes region where it is most prevalent. Quechua was one of two language options when I phoned my cell phone provider (Movistar). Street names around the coastal city of Chiclayo were taken from the language.
Quechua is a complex and seems to have long words, but it is pleasing to hear. My host mother, originally from Cuzco, would sometimes say things in Quechua, a language in which she learned the basics as a young girl to be able to converse with vendors at the markets in her Andean city. She loved singing along to songs in Quechua on the radio or her CDs and happily taught me a few basic greetings and numbers during my first weeks in Peru (I really should brush up on them…)
Out of curiosity, while travelling in the Sacred Valley of the Inca (near Cuzco), I asked a taxi driver if kids in public schools have the option to learn Quechua in school. His response: while most natives of the region speak Quechua at home, they study in Spanish and English is the only second language option; Quechua is not useful in the region’s job market as tourism is the main industry, so why bother teaching it at school? (I internally sighed…)
Back in Chiclayo, while I was offering an English class to students in Project Chiclayo, something amusing occurred when the owner of the home in which we did classes walked in and heard us practising English. As a kindhearted and loving father who came from the Andean mountains to work in Chiclayo, he still remembers some Quechua. As a bit of a joke –or to make a good point– he lightly chuckled at the English I was teaching the kids, saying it was a difficult language and not necessary useful to them (to a degree he was right; tourism is far less present in Chiclayo as compared to Cuzco). Suddenly, he put me on the spot: he asked me if I knew any Quechua. At that point, I only knew a few words so I admitted that I did not. He then started pointing to things in the room and saying their name in Quechua and the kids, of course, chimed in like parrots, giggling at the interruption. Before I knew it, a good five minutes of the session had passed. I think that we all enjoyed the break and it was a great reminder to me of my hopes prior to arriving in Peru of learning some Quechua.
In addition to TV programs highlighting Peru’s diverse cultures in which traditional and modern songs written in Quechua are sung by children or professionals, the language was present in national singing competitions such ‘La Voz’ (The Voice) and ‘Perú Tiene Talento’ (Peru’s got Talent). Sometimes singers would translate Castellano lyrics into Quechua, but the most beautiful songs were ones originally written in the language. Other performers chose to sing half of the verses in Castellano and half in Quechua.
The most recent winner of La Voz in December was a young singer that did a fabulous interpretation of ‘Ojos Azules’ (Blue Eyes) in both Castellano and Quechua. Coming from a country in which indigenous languages have nearly been lost, it was neat to see pop singers proud to sing in Peru’s 2nd most spoken language on national television. Before beginning to sing, Daniel Lazo quoted a famous saying, ‘Los que los hombres que no recuerdan de dónde vienen no saben a dónde van’ (Those who do not remember where they come from don’t know where they are going’)…
If I were suddenly fluent in Quechua, I’d have an even stronger desire to return to Peru and then visit other South American countries to put my skills to use. I’d become more involved with social programs and enjoy visiting rural areas where I would chat for long hours with people trustworthy of a foreigner; it would be fascinating to learn about their past, their beliefs, their cultural practices, their daily lives. I’d happily act as a translator, although simply knowing the language would leave a gaping hole in terms of my knowledge of Andean cultures, that I would then come to know through the language.
A line from my host mother (in my rough phonetic lingo, accents meaning to just stress that syllable):
Tákay key súnchis, áma wácaspaya
Meaning roughly ‘we sing without crying‘, or ‘sing, don’t cry‘,
as in don’t worry and don’t be sad, but let out your joy.