A Comment on Textbooks to Learn Maya
There is one basic standard textbook for non-native, non-heritage language speakers to learn (Yucatec) Maya. This lesson book, called "Spoken Maya Lessons" was developed in 1965 as a dissertation out of University of Chicago. It includes audio conversation, pronunciation drills, structural drills for conjugation, translation exercises and more. While this work is a tour de force, it is outdated in terms of the way Maya is spoken today. It is also weak in that there is a lot of Spanish loanwords introduced into the lessons. Further, the explanations of grammar that included in each lesson are often simply inscrutable unless you already know the linguistic rules being discussed! Nonetheless, because this textbook, comprising 19 lessons, was written with a powerful pragmatic design it is still to this day, nearly 50 years later, the basic text and audio lessons by which to learn Maya! Because of its weaknesses it needs to be supplemented by other language resources described below. There are other textbooks, primarily written in Spanish, which are also discussed below.
Maya Language Resources
The majority of resources available to learn Maya can be divided into three types of materials. These are linguistic studies, dictionaries/glossaries, and pedagogical materials. The latter can be further divided into primarily Spanish language based materials that target native and heritage-language speakers and English based pedagogical tools designed for Maya as a second, non-native language.
Linguistic Studies as Tools for Learning Maya
The first type is created by linguists for the primary purpose of the analysis or explanation of how Maya language works. In this category I would also place linguistic analyses of language change, hieroglyphic writing, and sociolinguistic studies. Regardless of the language in which the linguistic recources are written, such as English, Spanish or another European language for example, the linguistic-focused materials are very difficult for the average person to use as a means to read, write, and speak Maya. Historically speaking however this has been the majority of materials that are available. Their value for learning Maya is quite restricted. They can be used primarily as a resource for teachers of Maya who have a linguistics background and who can therefore "translate" linguistic understandings into practical communicative functions. A short bibliography of relevant materials in Spanish and English can be found here.
Dictionaries as Tools for Learning Maya
Maya Dictionaries based in English
The second category of materials are dictionaries, glossaries, and vocabulary lists. The vast majority of these use either Spanish or English to interface with Yucatec Maya. The problem here is of course, that dictionaries are invaluable for learning a language but they really do not provide the means or methods by which to learn a language. Thus, while dictionaries are indispensible, finding a good Maya dictionary is almost impossible!
The majority in English are not actually dictionaries but glossaries and word lists. Furthermore, they are very limited in size or word count. The best such Maya-English/English-Maya "dictionary" is created by John Montgomery. It has the most robust listing of words in a glossary format with the least amount of errors or painful omissions. Furthermore, it is inexpensive and a very portable sized book to carry with you anywhere. Just as I recommend strongly this book, I also strongly recommend against spending money on any other Maya-English dictionary.
The only exception to this is the extraordinary scholarly study of Maya by Victoria R. Bricker, Eleuterio Po'ot Yah and Ofelia Dzul de Po'ot. This Dictionary of the Maya Language As Spoken in Hocabá, Yucatán, however, is not so portable and it's list price is not for the feeble of heart. Nonetheless, it is an absolute essential dictionary to have if you are serious about learning Maya. It is a not a book that can be easily used by persons who do not already have a significant knowledge of Maya or of linguistics. In fact, the ideal target is those who have suffered for too long with woefully inadequate glossaries for too long. Thus, for example, it does soft-pedal and blur significant distinctions of tone, accent, glottalization, voice, and verbal category. In fact. the Maya is not written in one or another of the available contemporary orthographies currently being used, but rather in the linguistic IPA system, i.e., the International Phonetic Alphabet, precisely in order to insert precision and accuracy everywhere possible. Another factor that makes it difficult to use also does not have an English to Maya section. Further, and while the explanation of the grammatical issues is terse and often obtuse for non-linguists, it does have an invaluable description of the formation of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, as well as a Maya botanical glossary. It is therefore a required resource for anyone seriously learning Maya or who is a scholar in one or another related field such as epigraphy, ethnohistorical, linguistics, and bilingual education..
Maya Dictionaries based in Spanish
Maya dictionaries in Spanish have a different series of problems. On the one hand, the one most extensive dictionary, published in 1983, is a vast compilation of all existing colonial dictionaries and knowledge of the then contemporary spoken language based on native-speaker researchers. The book is unwieldy, weighing in at least 5-7 kilos with oversized dimensions of approximately 5-6 inches thick by 20 inches long and 10 or 12 inches wide. Besides this physical deterent to its use, the book is also virtually unuseable in terms of its content and organization. What you just read was heresy, but there you have it! It is unuseable unless you are really interested in the sociohistorical or linguistic analysis of words and can spend a month to figure out the technical issue of how to find, read, and make sense of the entries. To make things even more difficult, it is written in a modernized colonial orthography that is no longer being used today by linguists or native speakers. Thus, as a source, the famous Cordemex Maya Dictionary is much like using a 16th century dictionary to figure out what contemporary Maya speech. It is not an appropriate source despite its huge significance as a scholarly tome.
The most robust and useable "dictionary in Spanish is the Spanish-Maya/Maya-Spanish edited by Juan Ramon Bastarrachea et al. This dictionary has an extensive word listing with the least amount of errors and the most inclusion of useful words not to be found elsewhere. Note that there seems to be a knock-off version of this dictionary floating around in published and electronic formats. The knock-off seems to have the exact same content, but the authors/compilers have been deleted from the cover and title pages. Odd, but there it is.
Again, this book however is a word listing/glossary and not a dictionary. Thus it suffers all the problems that these glossaries have regardless of the language in which it is produced: The variant spellings are haphazardly inserted in the list, sometimes as a separate word, sometimes excluded, but never as a systematic description of the processes of morphological changes that happen to a word when it undergoes different kinds of conjugation due to voice, time, mood. Further, the glossary definitions provide no nuances of meaning. For example, you may find one but not all five Maya words for "slippery". If you do find more than one you will not get a description of which one is for things that are slippery in nature versus slippery because they become wet with water or grease or because they are slippery to the hand or slippery in relation to feet. The only solution to learning this type of information, besides having life recourse to several native speakers, is the Maya Dictionary as Spoken in Hocaba compiled by Bricker, Po'ot Yah, and Dzul de Po'ot.
Further, it is my opinion that the Maya dictionaries, and especially glossaries, in Spanish are not very accurate in terms of their translation of meanings. Perhaps this is simply a result of too much shared and presupposed cultural knowledge by the Yucatecan compilers. In other words, the nuances of meaning are already, implicitly comprehended by the dictionary maker and thus a several different Maya words will be translated into the same Spanish word. The native meaning becomes ever further removed if English speaking dictionary is then based on these loose Spanish translations. Regardless, the specificity of meanings of Maya words are too often blurred or erased by Spanish language dictionaries to a greater extent, it seems to me, than in English based Maya dictionaries. This may also seem to be the case because there are so fewer of the latter by comparison and thus the mistakes of translation of meaning is not so apparent!
Dictionaries of Maya Verbs
It should be mentioned that a number of Yucatec and native Maya linguists, and most recently a group of Japanese scholars! tend to produce dictionaries of Maya verbs. There are at least four or five of these textbooks available in Spanish by different authors and then there is the related study by Bricker in English. In general, however, while having these as tools is better than not having them, they are not as helpful or useful as one might hope or expect. Typically they are written in terse and technical linguistic jargon that makes them incomprehensible. Or they are organized according to the author's conceptual categories and his or her linguistic argument about the nature of Maya verbs. Thus, they are great if you want an explanation of the language but not so useful if you want to have a dictionary that helps you speak, read or write the language. These are not by any means anything close to the famous "500 Verbs" books that are available for the major European languages. In other words, not only are these dictionaries of verbs are not real dictionaries in the sense of a dictionary explanation of the meaning of the word, but they are not comprehensible descriptions of how to conjugate hundreds much less 500 Maya verbs.
Textbooks for Learning Maya
Textbooks in Spanish for Learning Maya
The resources and materials developed to teach Maya in Spanish target learners who are either already native speakers or who are "heritage-speakers." In the first case, the materials are geared toward creating literacy among primarily monolingual Maya speakers. These materials are developed through the Mexican federal education agency. While I can not comment on their effectiveness in this goal, I can say that they are not at all helpful for non native speakers. Consider looking images of things that you have no cultural familiarity, say an exotic fruit that is green with needles protruding, with a line underneath that requires you to write the name of the item. These books rely on extensive pressupped cultural understandings and knowledge that most non-Yucatecans don't have and will not have even after some time living in Yucatan. The majority of Mexican also simply do not have this cultural knowledge and background by which to make sense of the Maya things of Yucatan.
The learning Maya textbooks that aim for "heritage speakers" also presuppose extensive cultural knowledge and historical understanding. Furthermore, they also presuppose quite a high level of proficiency of Maya of the student. These books, even the level one books, are difficult if not impossible to use in a first semester or first year course for non-Yucatecan learners of Maya. The majority of these are also produced by academics or applied scholars working for and in the federal education agency. As one advanced student complained to me, the stories used in these books are culturally watered down and censored even. Although at first scandalized by the ribald nature of culturally "authentic" Maya stories, songs, and jokes, this student had come to recognize the sui generis Maya aesthetic and rhetoric of narratives. This tends to be washed out of the government produced materials.
Textbooks in English for Learning Maya
The pedagogical materials developed in English to teach communicative Maya as a second language are virtually non-existent. As mentioned above, there is a 1965 textbook and audio set called Spoken Maya Lessons. Unfortunately, however, this material has never been published in a formal manner. Scholars and others had to make a special purchase of the materials through the University of Chicago Microfilm Collections section of the university library! These materials in revised format can now be purchased through UNC-Chapel Hill. This lesson book despite its extraordinary vitality and utility has weaknesses, including the explanation of grammar. However, there is no other text book for learning Maya as there is for example of Spanish, English, or even many other Less Commonly Taught Languages such as Kakchiquel Maya.
There are a few books that combine Maya-English glossaries with an abbreviated and simplified yet terse explications of Maya verb structures. Of these, Gary Bevington's book, Maya for Travelers and Students was the only major supplement to the 1965 dissertation. In my view however it is not useful book as there are too many errors or questionable choices in translation, explanations, and commentary. Recently, John Montgomery has published a similarly conceived "dictionary" that combines a short explanation of grammar with Maya-English, English-Maya glossary. For anyone who has not had a course in Maya linguistics or even a basic course in Maya syntax, these explanations are not useful. For those who already know this, these explanations are also not useful. It seems however that publishers believe this information will help sales, nonetheless.
There is one comprehensive grammar of Maya written by John Bolles that appears in disjunctive form on the www.famsi.org website and also in a published hardback format. The main problem with this work is that it is written in the modifed or modernized colonial orthography that is not at all currently in use by anyone. This orthography not only uses different characters for consonants than are currently being used by a number of different orthographies, but virtually all the long vowel sounds are reduced to a written form of short vowel. Accents to mark tone of vowels are not used at all. In other words, one has to do a lot of hermeneutic work just to be able to begin to use this as a resource. Even if one is able to do this, which requires quite a bit of knowledge to begin, the text is written in the format of a grammar, not of a lesson book to teach the reader how to learn Maya as a written or spoken language.
In short we are back to the 1965 Spoken Maya Lessons as THE standard text and audio for learning Maya as a second language! Given these conditions, Quetzil Castañeda has been preparing a new text book to fill the gap. His book is based on the pegagical materials he has prepared for the Maya language courses he has taught over the last four years at Indiana University. Students in the OSEA Summer Intensive Maya Language Immersion Program use a combination of textbooks, both the Spoken Maya Lessons and the book in progress by Castañeda, as well as additional supplementary materials from a variety of sources, including radio and TV broadcasts, narrative books written in Maya, and live audio and videio recordings.