Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Kekchi Language

We started Kekchi classes again as soon as we got back in June. We had been having a real problem with finding a tutor who would come more than 3 times. There was always just some kind of scheduling conflict on their part. Domingo and José are very good friends with a pastor in Dolores, a town 45 minutes from us. He has since turned his church over to another pastor since he was brought in just to help save a dying church. He is also a full time elementary school teacher. He speaks fluent Spanish, but is Kekchi. His name on the blog will be Tutor #4. He is the best tutor we have had... and he has been showing up regularly for over 2 months!
{Tutor #4}

We have our classes at 8:30 after the boys go to sleep, which makes for no interruptions. We are thankful that Tutor #4 is willing to come so late. We have class twice a week and go over a chapter each time. It is a lot of material, but the days in between give us time to really memorize it... or at least try to.

Our classes are a little different this time. The following is what I understand from several conversations, so it is as accurate as word of mouth across 3 languages can be: In 2001 the government decided that since over a million people spoke Kekchi it was time to legalize the language. They unified the Mayan alphabet for at least 4 of the 23 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala. This was supposed to make it standardized with rules that everyone could follow. With the new alphabet it meant that the spelling of most of the words changed. (So everything we learned in the past we need to forget?) Very few adults read and write the language anyway, but if they do they read the "old" way. Everyone who has learned to read since 2001 and will learn to read in the future will be with the "new" alphabet and spelling. So which one do we learn? Which alphabet anyone should use is a very touchy subject in some circles.
Well... we chose the "new, standardized" way. So it is almost like starting from scratch, only more confusing! Kekchi is no longer Kekchi, it is Q'eqchi'. (For the record I don't think that looks easier.)

Since the government legalized the language they also developed grammar books. These books are extremely hard to find around here. It took us over a month and a couple hundred photocopies of Tutor #4's book before Jimmy finally found 2 in a town an hour from here. Unfortunately there are a lot of typos in the book and not a lot of explanation, so we are figuring it out as we go along. If the book states a rule then at least half of the examples below it don't even follow the rule... I just don't get it. Are they irregular? Is there more to the rule that we need to figure out? If it wasn't for my sharp high school French teacher I don't think I would ever be able to organize all of this information in a usable way for me to learn it. I'm so thankful for her!
{Our textbooks}
Beyond the book, in our circles I have met 1 person since being here that understands grammar... as in, they really understood what a noun or a preposition was, it was my Spanish tutor back in Xela. It isn't really emphasized here. They just memorize rote things without many rules. This makes it very difficult to ask questions.

Jimmy thrives in this environment. He just memorizes entire sentences, or random conjugated verbs without ever learning the infinitives. I don't want to learn a conjugated verb until I learn the infinitive and then I want to learn a tense and how to conjugate all the verbs in that tense... is that too much to ask! I'm sure many missionaries have to learn indigenous languages without any books at all, so I shouldn't complain.

I would argue that Jimmy has to be one of the most annoying people to ever learn a language with because he picks stuff up so easily. Our teacher knows it and keeps giving him imaginary gold stars during class when he shows off. The two of them think they're cute. This is my learning environment!


*There are 33 letters in the Kekchi alphabet and they don't use "d", "f", "g", or "v".
*The Kekchi language itself is really very beautiful... as long as an "x" doesn't fall next to a "q", then something crazy happens in your throat, that only a little phlegm could help resolve.
*Question marks are not used.
*It is very descriptive and gives a lot of insight into their culture. Like the word for a big truck, "teken ch'iich". It literally means a large metal ant.
*"Paabank", which means both to believe and to obey. I thought that was really a neat way to describe your faith. They are one in the same.
*The verb "utz'uk" means both to smell and to kiss!
*The word "kaxlan" means stranger. So bread, like we eat, that Kekchi people would not normally eat is called "kaxlan wa" which means the stranger's tortilla. The same way with a light (in a house). It is called "kaxlan xaml", or the stranger's flame and a soda is "kaxlan ha' ", the stranger's water.
*James Yoder is the one who explained to us that Kekchi people are not very publicly affectionate, so they don't say "my husband" or "my wife". Instead they use other words like "the person I travel with" or "my partner in words" since it is the person you discuss everything with.

Kekchi is tough, but we are very motivated to communicate better with our friends and all the people that we want to personally share Christ with. Please pray that it will stick in our minds and especially pray for our pronunciation!


  1. That sounds very difficult! But fun!

  2. This reminded me of the Rosetta Stone endangered languages program. If there are a million speakers it doesn't seem that endangered but Unesco says it is vulnerable: (I can't seem to get a direct link but when I search Guatemala on that page, there it is). Linguistics are my fascination and I just loved your "fun facts."

    BTW I've subscribed to your blog for a while but only commented once or twice. I can't remember how I found it, but my point of interest is that I was born in Mexico to missionary parents. Congratulations on your new little one!

  3. Hi Natalia! Thanks for reading our blog. An MK... wow! I love talking with MK's and learning ways I can help my children, so please leave as many comments as you have time for. I would love to hear your perspective! I clicked on your blog, you have a beautiful family!

  4. Thanks for the welcome and for liking my family! ;) I am an MK but only until I was two--so I won't be a lot of help with advice, sorry! It has definitely affected my life though, with my interest in languages, missions, etc (and my name :) ). Been back a couple times. Now my parents moved back there (different area though and more to retire), and my son went on a 6-week trip with his Christian school last year.

    Funnily, this appeared on my Facebook page from some missionary friends in Ecuador today:

    It's a short humourous song about being an MK. :)

    All the best


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...