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On the Importance of Learning Maya: Suggestions for Fieldwork and Long Terms Researchers

From student participants in 1997

These are some pointers regarding what worked for me in 1997. Keep in mind that I stayed with a predominantly Maya-speaking family.

A background in the tapes SPOKEN YUCATEC MAYA LESSONS is probably the most important thing. Even though I didn’t understand the vast VAST majority of what was being said, having listened to the tapes, getting to know some of the sounds, and being able to pick out words and phrases in the beginning of the field school made the whole thing less intimidating. I refer back to the tapes and to the written text of the lesson book constantly for grammar.

If you pick up anything from the tapes, get some of the obvious stuff. Get to know the first, second, and third persons. Pick up basic greetings, and words like “go,” “come,” and etc. If you can come with a “feel” for the language, picking up vocabulary is much easier.

Play the “what’s it called” game when you are in Pisté or any where traveling in Yucatán. Ask for the names of stuff around the house. It’s a quick and instantly gratifying way to build vocabulary. For weeks, my most important phrase in Maya was “Ba’ax u k’aba ich Maya” (What’s it called in Maya?). Keep in mind, though, that this only works for so long.. I reached the limit of what I could learn in 1997 when I could not engage in complex conversations (despite building vocabulary). Grammar takes a much more conscious effort. Giving English in exchange for Maya lessons can also be really helpful, and makes the exercise more interesting.

Pronunciation, especially of glottals, can be REALLY subtle. On my first day, while watching the butchering of a pig, I was puzzled over the difference between Bak (bone) and Bak’ (meat). It takes a while to develop an ear for this. The tapes help, but I found that the pronunciation I heard in Piste could be much subtler. Indeed, the dialectic varieties of Maya in Pisté is quite high, thus in addition to the variations of individual speakers, there is quite wide range of pronunciation. However, native speakers unlike foreigners can pick up the constancy of meaning behind the completely variable pronunciation of words.

Keep in mind that the people you will be speaking to have probably never studied Maya grammatically. The people I spoke with didn’t discuss in terms of tense etc., and when I asked for the “breakdown” of a sentence it was often given in terms which I had a hard time understanding. If you ask someone for ways to say something in Maya, you’ll have phrases sort of thrown at you. Write down as much as you can (My host family insisted that I do so). Look over your notes later, and try to figure out the phrases grammatically. For me, these realizations came (and still come as I look into my old notes) as Oh-wow-that’s-how-that-phrase-works sort of way.

Keep in mind that people don’t really speak like in they do in the tapes. Some things are different. For example, when I first arrived, I tried to say “I am going” as “tan im bin.” People looked at me as if I stepped of a spaceship. In Piste, most people use the contracted versions (tim bin, tan bin, tun bin).
Speak Maya often, even if what you know is limited. That was my other main setback in 1997. I toned out of conversations which, in retrospect, would probably have been immensely helpful.





Additional Commentary

It is imperative that you study at least the first 6 lessons of the Maya Tapes. As Fernando states it will begin to provide you with a familiarity of the phonetics of the language. You will also be able to pick up some basic everyday sentences. In the month prior to Field School, begin listening to the tapes on a regular schedule; figure out a 1-2 hour stroll through the park or sitting in the sauna in which you can listen to the tapes. LISTEN, SPEAK AND READ THE TAPES. The first time that you start a lesson, force yourself to complete it with as minimum of stopping and rewinding. This way you begin to just hear the sounds and you can become familiar with the words and then the meanings and just repeat. Make yourself into an eccentric personage and go grocery shopping with your tapes and speaking maya — some people will think you a freak others will think you are quite the bomb.

The importance of learning basic introductory Maya cannot be overstated. There is a lot going on in the Field School and thus time is short. However, your experience will be dramatically altered and infinitely richer if you make a serious attempt to speak maya.

The Bricker, “Maya Verbs” is an excellent resource since it contains a dictionary and an explanation of the grammar. This is something that you can study on your own, but do not panic if it makes no sense. We will discuss Maya grammar and syntax in the field.

During field work you will constantly carry a notebook that will be dedicated to MAYA. As Fernando points out: Everywhere and anywhere that you are engaged in a conversation, Maya will be spoken, sometimes more sometimes less. ALWAYS have a notebook handy so that you can write the Maya that you hear. You must be able to learn to figure out the sounds and to write these down – obviously initially you will not be able to hear correctly until you continue to do this and gain more and more knowledge. This IS learning the language. Learning is learning something entirely new and different and this requires time and energy and commitment.

Learning a new language live means developing the patience to participate in conversations in which you actively take part in the primary role of LISTENER. Trying to follow a conversation without necessarily seeking to speak, but following and figuring out idioms, lexicon, styles, rhetorics, etc. is very fundamental. More discussion of this will be necessary.

We will develop maya learning games that correlate to the SELT games for teaching/learning English. This includes making 3x5 flash cards with sentences and lexicon, body games, songs -- ka hooka ka ‘ooka ---

You can begin now by making a list of 10-20 words a week that are basic for you to use: go, look, see, speak, listen, chair, table, walk, etc. and then begin to look these words up in the Maya Tapes and in Bricker.

Also note that the MAYA LESSONS are written in the Linguistic Universal Orthography, which at first can be shocking for its exoticism. However do not let this panic you. The initial page has a legend that keys the sounds of the normal alphabet with the universal orthography.




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