Mayan Magic & The International Year of Indigenous Language

July 17, 2019 by

The UN made 2019 The International Year of Indigenous Languages. People from all over the world the language learning community and specialist groups for languages, especially groups dedicated to the protection, promotion and learning of indigenous and endangered languages got excited by the idea.

But what does it mean? Over the year so far, I have spoken to disparate groups, who have been asking the same question. It seems that, like me, many people have simply taken on the year and branded it to fit their objectives. This is all great and positive. After all, I did the same and adopted it as a theme for the Polyglot Conference in Fukuoka too. My goal was clear: we’d celebrate these languages during the conference through presentations and workshops and we’d also encourage people to learn them during language challenges. There’s even a hashtag on Twitter for it:#iy2019

I felt quite pleased with myself at the point of making this video and picking the theme of indigenous languages. Super easy to do and I’d done my part. Then I arrived in Mexico, where I was based for a month with my family. We picked Cancun because it was a family trip and there is a lot going on there for the whole family. Like every visitor to the area, we did the typical pilgrimage to the famous Mayan Chichen Itza.

The ruins were as impressive as you can imagine from the stories, videos and photos you see. But one thing really struck me during my trip there: the people were not speaking Spanish to each other. They were speaking Mayan. This language and culture that was being mentioned all around us on tours of the area and on souvenirs for tourists was a living daily language for many people. The popular stuff was all a bit, well, vacuous to be honest.

So we have this year for indigenous languages, but how do you go about learning them? Or even supporting them?

My natural linguistic curiosity kicked in and I was determined to look into how you would go about learning a Mayan. As usual, I hit the bookshops in Cancun in search of written materials. The people just looked at me blankly, as though I just asked them, “Where can I buy a chocolate fire guard?”. Not only was the question for them pointless, but verging on the ridiculous. They were polite, but I could see the reaction behind the awkward smiles. They only ever responded, “We have dictionaries!”. Nothing they suggested was what I was looking for, though I did pick up a small dictionary, more to support the people producing something in the language than for any other reason.

I asked friends and they suggested that perhaps I’d find something when we take a trip to Merida, as that’s the capital of the region. I went to the Mayan World Museum (El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya), which was fantastic with all sorts of information about the culture, society and language. In fact, it helped to give ms some good background on the topic.

Mayan Language Family Tree

Once again I went around town, looking for bookshops. The staff at the hotel kindly suggested somewhere I might try to find what I was looking for. Unfortunately, again and again in bookshop after bookshop, I just kept finding the same dictionaroes.

Lorenzo Maldonado

Lorenzo Maldonado

When I got back to Cancun, my friend Erick had come across a course on Mayan, which was about to start for the year. He had heard of the teacher because he was a former radio presenter. We went along to the first class. It was in a very hot room with fans whirring full blast. On an already hot day in Cancun, it was actually unbearable for me and paying attention to the class was impossible.

Erick was kind enough to stay and agree a time  to meet with the teacher, so we could talk more about the language and his work. In a very air conditioned coffee shop our Mayan language teacher,, Lorenzo Maldonado, shared with me his struggles to get funding to teach Mayan.  People would sometimes learn the language well from him, but then leave for work elsewhere. So the support network to help bring the written language to native speakers is sadly lacking. His goal is to help Mayans read and write their own language, as well as to teach people to speak to the language.

He teaches the course in Cancun, but also sends his students recordings and texts to learn the language via Whatsapp too.

Lorenzo heard the language as a child, but was encouraged to only speak Spanish. This is a common story from that era and echoes stories from many other places in the world. My own great-grandparents were discouraged to pass on their native Welsh language at home. There was absolutely no question it would be but a hinderance to my grandmother and her siblings to speak Welsh (and by extension inferior English). Yes. That was the belief and reasoning behind it, regardless of how wrong that is. These stories are common and sad.

Lotenzo moved to another part of Mexico, where the Mayan language was not spoken. There he came across a copy of The Bible in Mayan and taught himself to read and write the language. He started writing about the language and teaching it to others. When he came back to Cancun he worked as a radio presenter, using the language. He also started teaching it to groups and taking the written language back to the people who speak it on a daily basis.

Erick and I were moved by his story and it spurred me to look for additional resources to help people learn Mayan. In fact, my searches brought up a number of videos on Youtube:

I also came across Ricardo Vollbrechthausen, Editor in Chief at Lakam Naaj, who has been working very hard to put together some great resources to teach the language. He also has a Facebook page dedicated to the Mayan language.

Ricardo and I had a long conversation about the Mayan language. He was well aware of stories like Lorenzo’s in sharing the knowledge. Another added difficulty is where people agree on writing conventions for the language and how far Spanish loanwords should be simply accepted into the language. These discussion are contentious. Spanish loanwords in the modern Mayan language are commonplace though. Neologisms are not readily understood, or sound odd to native speakers. Keep this in mind, when you learn it, or other indigenous languages.

When you pick an indigenous language to study, you’ll need to look at what’s available and seek out speakers and teachers. Fortunately online we can find so much more and find it all much more easily than ever. As an example, I want to end my story of finding Mayan language resources by sharing what I have found here with you now as an example, or to help you learn Mayan!

I found the following books for free on Mayan at the University of Quintana Roo:

Mayan-Spanish Dictionary

Mayan Course 1

Mayan Course 2

Mayan Course 3

Mayan Course 4

Each course represents a semester of university study. The materials are more conservative in terms of purist Mayan language vocabulary, so keep this in mind when using them. Ricardo will soon have materials available on his site, which more faithfully represent how modern Mayan is used in the communities in Mexico.

And here are some videos on Youtube to get your started with the pronunciation:


Edit on 24th July to include this wonderful Ted Talk about indigenous languages:

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This post was written by Richard

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