There is a tiny treasure of a program at the University of North Carolina called the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute. People from around the world come here to learn the Maya language in both immersive campus training and in experiential programs in the Yucatán. In an article I wrote to highlight the program on its twentieth anniversary (which happens to coincide with all the 2012 long calendar hype), I spoke with folks involved in the Maya institute about what it means to learn a rather specialized language, spoken by about a million people in Mexico and northern Belize. Here is what I heard:
John Elliott, recent UNC graduate: "From a linguistics point of view, it’s really great to study a language with no relationship to English. You know more about language when you know more about first languages.” He added: “It’s probably an experience a lot of people wouldn’t get, having your first experience in Mexico from an indigenous standpoint." And: “If you want to do something intercultural in the U.S., it’s a really good opportunity to understand the relations between majority and minority groups in another country."
Ben Fallaw, one of the first students, now a Colby College professor of Latin American history: “(I) came to understand how the Maya organize reality in a way very different from my native culture ... Thanks to my experience with the institute I came to read my documents in new ways, reading between the lines as it were to see the subtle but pervasive ways Mayan culture survived and influenced land use, politics and religion in twentieth century Yucatán.”
Sharon Mújica, program founder: “People in the villages are always thrilled: they want to help (the students) learn the language and welcome them into their homes … when you speak their language, they open up in a way they wouldn’t before.”
David Mora-Marín, UNC associate professor: "A lot of people sometimes assume they can study other cultures by looking at what’s been written about them in English.” He's particularly excited about new pioneering policies to integrate indigenous languages into modern Mexican life, and feels that world has a lot to learn by watching to see how this unfolds. The Universidad de Oriente, for example, is a new teacher-training site for Maya language instruction in primary schools, which Mora-Marín calls “essentially a testing ground for new government policy in Mexico. It’s a major step forward in the revitalization of languages.”