Episode 30: Pedro Mateo Pedro on Mayan Language Research & Revitalization

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/07/30/episode-30-pedro-mateo-pedro-on-mayan-language-research-revitalization/

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Pedro Mateo Pedro. Pedro Mateo Pedro is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and the Executive Director of the Guatemala Field Station at the University of Maryland. Pedro is a native speaker of Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language of Guatemala. His research focuses on the documentation and description of Mayan languages, specifically language acquisition, Mayan languages in contact, and dialectal variation. Pedro received his PhD in linguistics at the University of Kansas in 2010 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Pedro has taught at universities in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Additionally, Pedro has worked on the production of educational materials in Mayan languages in coordination with different institutions in Guatemala, such as the Ministry of Education and the Academy of Maya Languages of Guatemala.

So, I really enjoyed talking to Pedro and learning more about his research. He works… A lot of his research focuses on child language learning, language acquisition, which is very different from a lot of linguists who work with endangered languages, because usually, as most people who are listening to this probably already know, these speakers are quite elderly and the new babies in the community are acquiring the majority language (so in the case where I work, that’s Japanese; in Pedro’s case, that would be Spanish), but he actually does research in communities where children are still acquiring their local language, their Mayan languages. And that’s, I think, very interesting because it’s not something you hear about so much in this field. Additionally, Pedro’s collaboration that he’s been doing in the communities I found so inspiring. Everybody knows that we should be always collaborating and involving the community and listening to what the community thinks the, what direction they think the research should go in, but Pedro is actually taking it one step further by not only training community members in linguistic data collection, but also linguistic data analysis. So yeah, so I just found him really inspiring, and I’m so excited for everyone to hear this interview.


Okay, well, thank you so much, Dr. Pedro Mateo Pedro, for coming on to Field Notes. I really appreciate you taking time to share your experiences and your expertise with Field Notes, myself and the listeners. So to start, can I ask you how you first became interested in field linguistics? Like how did you first become a linguist?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Thank you for this opportunity. And my interest in linguistics became, I think, after going to a boarding school, so I went to a boarding school where there were many Mayan languages were there because different students from different Mayan communities. But the most important thing was that I took, I think it was the only class, but it was a class on the grammar of Mayan languages. I learned a little bit about the grammar of Mayan languages and a little bit about Q’anjob’al, and I think that was kind of the motivation for me to try to, trying to understand how languages work. And after the boarding school, then I went to the university and study a little bit of linguistics. It was mainly about applied linguistics.

MTB: So was that when you were still living in Guatemala?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, I was living in Guatemala, yeah, so yeah. And I forgot to mention that I’m originally from Guatemala and also a speaker of one of the Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, which is Q’anjob’al.

MTB: For our listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with Mayan languages, can you speak a little bit about like the different Mayan languages and how they all interact, just a bit about like the language context?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: There are about thirty Mayan languages spoken, and they are mainly located in southern part of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, and in Guatemala there are about 21 Mayan languages spoken.

MTB: Wow.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: And one of them is so Q’anjob’al. So Q’anjob’al is the Mayan language, as I mentioned, is the Mayan language that I speak, and it is spoken in the four communities in Huehuetenango in the western part of Guatemala, and it’s spoken by about 100,000 speakers. And for different factors, like the civil war that happened in Guatemala, many speakers moved to other countries. For example, in Mexico, for example the U.S. and Canada. One thing to mention about the situation of the Mayan languages in contrast to Spanish is that all Mayan languages have an unofficial status.

MTB: So they’re unrecognized.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, so in this case, the official language is Spanish. Therefore, this language is used in public services (for example, education, justice, health service, for example), but then Mayan languages (or in this case more specifically, Q’anjob’al) it has… I mean, its contexts of uses, for example, it’s very limited. It’s used at the community level, for example, or at home.

MTB: So just in the like family, home, neighborhood domains. Would you say that some Mayan languages have a minority-within-a-minority situation, like some are much larger than others? Do you feel that?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Well, in the case of Guatemala, for example, so there are four Mayan languages that have more number of speakers. So that includes Kʼicheʼ, Mam, Qʼeqchiʼ and Kaqchikel, so those are the four Mayan languages with this majority of number of speakers. Then there is another group of Mayan languages that we can call perhaps like minority in terms of their number of speakers, but it has advantages and disadvantages. I mean, in this case, where these languages fall within this majority or minority, so in terms of, in this case, in the educational system, for example, most of the time, the majority languages are the ones that get more attention in this case. There is more production, educational materials are much easier to produce in this majority, I mean languages that have more number of speakers, for example, but in the others that are minority languages, then those kind of productions are very, very low. So I think that’s the main distinction there, but there is, of course, one common thing among these Mayan languages that are… I mean, one, as I mentioned, is, they are not official languages, and also their status is really different compared to Spanish, for example. So even though there is a difference between minority and majority, they have the same problem.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, I see. Do you see that in online… Are the majority Mayan languages like Kʼicheʼ, is it more prevalent online? If a speaker of a bigger language wants to use Facebook or something in their Mayan language, is it more accessible for them to use it than the smaller ones, or…?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure about that. I think… Well, I would say that there is more material in these languages, and of course, yeah, there are some that are online, but I think there are also some materials that are online with these Mayan languages that we are labeling here as minority languages, and also that speakers are kind of using more those languages online, for example, or in social media, for example.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I just spoke to Hilaria Cruz, who is originally from Mexico. She’s a speaker of Chatino, and she said that before it was impossible, like it would have been impossible to use Chatino online because there was no orthography, so that’s like one way that speaking a smaller language can be a disadvantage if you’re trying to use social media or you want to have like a Facebook group, and now they’re able to do that kind of thing because they have the orthography. But yeah, I just wondered if that applied at all.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, so… Yeah, in the case of Mayan languages, yes, yeah. So there… I think I wouldn’t make a difference between minority or majority, but I think there are speakers that are using, for example, Facebook to write in the language, for example, and of course, some of them know the orthography and others do not, but they try to write in that language.

MTB: Yeah. That’s interesting. Moving back into like the linguistic research side of things, can you talk a bit about your own main research interests? What are you like mostly focused on?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: I work on language documentation, language revitalization, with the main focus on child language acquisition, so I have been working on the documentation of Mayan languages, but mainly about how children acquire languages, for example. So I had the opportunity to, being involved in different projects like Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Chʼol, Mam, and recently Kʼicheʼ and Awakateko. And as for my main research, so I focus on the how children acquire the verb morphology, for example. In this case, when we talk about tense aspect mark on the verb, agreement, and the person, for example, how persons are marked where, and then all kind of suffixes that are marked on the verb. And then I have explored a little bit about how children acquire causatives, for example, or the classifier system in Q’anjob’al, in this case in Q’anjob’al or Mayan languages of that Qʼanjobalan branch, for example, they are classifier languages, so I have studied a little bit about the acquisition of nominal classifiers and also numeral classifiers. So those are kind of the research that I have been kind of working on.

MTB: I wanted to ask you a bit about the animate versus non-animate classifiers. Can you say a little bit about how that works?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: So I would like to talk a little bit about the numeral classifiers. So there, there are three main numeral classifiers. One is for animal, which is –k’on, the one for people, –wan, and then for object is –eb’. So let’s say we’re going to count three people. So we’d say, the root for three is ox, oxwan (so three people), oxk’on (three animals), and then oxeb’, three objects. So the thing that I would… So the idea about animate and inanimate, I think it’s going to be with objects, for example, and then the others will be kind of animate. So considering here that animals and people are animate, for example. And when I studied the acquisition of numeral classifiers, for example, is that it seems that the children have problem in acquiring this distinction between who is, I mean who is who. So they are good at acquiring the –eb’, which is for object, and then they have some struggles in how to acquire or how to use –wan and –k’on. And what I have noticed is that they kind of use the –eb’ as a default form and then extend that to animals and to people. So when it comes to the question, well, what’s… I mean, in terms of the decision between animate and inanimate, it seems to me that they are good in acquiring the classifier for inanimate, but then when it comes to animate, it’s kind of, they struggle with that. So that’s kind of my understanding on that, on the acquisition of numeral classifiers.

MTB: That’s really interesting. So do you think that this is some kind of language loss or language change that’s happening, or it’s just that the children are learning their language this way?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: I would suggest that that’s a part of the process of acquiring the language. This is not… I mean, this is not only in Q’anjob’al that we see that. There are other languages, for example, like Yucatec, where also children have problem in acquiring the distinction between animate and inanimate, and this has been also shown for other languages that are classifier languages. So what I’m trying to say is that this is not unique for Q’anjob’al. According to other studies is that this process then is more like a problem for children more, it’s more like at the semantic level. So in this case, like the meaning of those is kind of the problem that these children are facing.

MT: Yeah, it’s… We also have, see this in Japanese. There’s different classifiers for counting, and I’m a second language learner Japanese speaker, and when I was learning, it was very overwhelming for me, like I would just use the general one for everything because I was like, “Oh, different things, different people, different animals,” like…

Pedro Mateo Pedro: So I think it’s… I would say a classifier language is more challenging in terms of when it comes to the acquisition, for example.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I agree with you. Can we talk a little bit about your revitalization work? So I know that you’ve been teaching linguistics, like Mayan linguistics, in Mayan communities, kind of going beyond the just having community members only collect the data and then that be the end of their role. Can you speak a little bit about your work there?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: So I think one reality of Mayan languages is that, yes, it is true that they are spoken still. I mean, there are many speakers of Mayan languages, and where children, for example, are acquiring those languages, but there is another reality that in fact some people are Mayan, but they don’t speak the language, for example. So that’s kind of where my work falls there between how to maintain a language and how to revitalize a language. So it’s kind of a combination of both.

And I would like to emphasize here that as for language maintenance, let’s say, I have been involved in different workshops. So I have one that I really like to mention. It’s the one that we developed in, that we do in Q’anjob’al with some colleagues and also elementary school teachers in my hometown, which is… Well, we started in my hometown, and then we started to go, I mean, in other communities, but this is a workshop that we do all in Q’anjob’al. I mean, these workshops have attracted many people, and I think that’s the one that, like really has, we have been successful in this. So the idea there is that, is to understand how the language works, for example, understanding the structure of Q’anjob’al for example, but at the same time help, in this case, elementary school teachers to develop their own material, for example. So in this case, it’s kind of the, how to help these speakers to work in their own material given the fact that the materials that come, for example, in this case from the Ministry of Education, for example, there are not many, so then how we can help these people to create their own material, for example. But here, this is kind of an ideal thing. But the most important thing is for them to understand the structure of the language. So that’s one thing in terms of workshop. I have been also teaching linguistics to Mayan communities, in this case to people who have been involved in the different projects that they have been involved in. So I think… So this is where knowing a little bit about linguistics or knowing a little bit how my language works and how to relate that structure to other languages, or in this case other Mayan languages, has been really helpful in terms of training. That’s the other part for training.

The other is about developing workshops on how to teach Mayan languages as a second language, for example. So there is a method that I would like to mention here, is a method developed by Judith Maxwell and her colleagues, and they have been using this method for about 20 years with international students learning Mayan languages, and we have seen this method that is really good when it comes to learn a language. So then we said, ‘Well, why [unclear 00:20:45] we don’t develop a workshop and share this method with other people who are interested in teaching Mayan language or who are interested in learning Mayan language?” So I think we conducted two or three workshops on how to use this method. I would say that that will be kind of the work that I have been trying to do in terms of language revitalization.

MTB: What is… Sorry, maybe I missed it. What’s the name of Judith Maxwell’s method that she used?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: I think it’s the Oxlajuj method, Oxlajuj Aj method. She has developed a manual that describes the different steps in that method.

MTB: Okay. I’ll link that in the show notes later in case people want to read more, more about it. Can you speak a little bit about the challenges or the advantages you’ve experienced as an insider linguist, or do you think that there are any challenges or advantages that you’ve experienced?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: I would kind of say something like this. So when you come to this, I mean meeting these challenges, like having one foot in the community and the other foot outside of the community, what I try to say there is that it’s about how to raise awareness about the unique properties of your community’s language. So I think that’s one of the challenging part, I mean, because one thing that we know for sure is that, as I mentioned when we started to talk, is that Spanish is the official language, and is the language that is known the most, and the language that is taught at school, for example. Then the other languages are like, yeah, we can talk about those languages, or you are not allowed to speak in your native language, so if you are not allowed to speak in your native language, then maybe you will not know about how your language work, so that’s one of the challenges that I think it’s interesting to mention here.

The other challenge I think it’s how to explain linguistics to speakers of your own community, in this case, how we can explain technical terms, for example, to people. So it’s kind of a challenge. So in this case, when it comes to work with community members, or when it comes to explain how linguistics works or how the language works, for example. But I think there’s a disadvan… I mean an advantage of this, and in this case being able to speak that language or understanding that language, and then this is really helpful to explain to your community, but at the same time, how this knowledge helps to train speakers of other Mayan languages, for example. So I think that’s an advantage, for example.

But the other thing for my case is basically, I mean, being in the community or working in the communities, like how to give back to your community. So I think that’s the most important thing for me. Like yeah, I know a little bit about linguistics, I have been studying a language, but then how to share that knowledge with that community. And I mentioned before that we developed these workshops in Q’anjob’al, and that was one of the main idea of how to give back to the community that knowledge or how we can share that knowledge with the community. So we’re speakers of the language, but then it’s not the same when we are at conferences, for example, in linguistics and trying to share what’s happening in Q’anjob’al, for example, in this case at the linguistic level, but then how we can share that knowledge with the community, for example, in this case, who are the speakers of… I mean, the speakers of that language.

But that’s one thing, I mean being in the community. So I think here, being a speaker of a Mayan language, then it’s kind of different because you want to kind of help the community members in how to maintain their language, but then you have to think about being an… I mean, being outside, so one foot outside of the community, and that is another challenge, too, because, again, you… I mean, as a linguist you want to kind of… People know what you do (right?) as a linguist or…

MTB: Yeah.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: … your research. Then you have to kind of, how to build a connection or a relationship or collaborative work with other languages, for example. So I think that’s kind of the challenges and advantages that I see in my work, in this case, being, I think, kind of in the middle. Right? So…

MTB: Yeah.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Here and there.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, that’s so true, and I think that the agendas of like the research, what is valued in academia and what is valued in communities don’t always align, so it’s very difficult to kind of like meet all the expectations if you’re trying to balance these two things.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: No, I think there’s an expression, like the win… I mean, in the winning. Let’s say the community wins and we win, for example, as linguists, but I think in many cases there is like mismatch, I mean like perhaps we are [unclear 00:26:28] how the community can help us to meet our needs, but maybe we don’t think in the opposite way, that how we can help the community to meet its needs or something like that. I think that’s kind of the way that I would put that idea.

MTB: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really true. Pedro, can you share with us, do you have any thoughts about what we can do to decolonize linguistics and/or more broadly academia?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, thank you for this question. Well, it made me think about how to think about it and how to answer this question. I think there is a whole discussion about this idea of decolonization, and there is also discussion about who is doing a good or better job in decolonizing, for example, either, or anthropological linguists, for example, or linguists, for example. So I’m not going to go into that, because, again, there are many ideas, and I don’t consider myself an expert in discussing these kind of things.

But one thing that I would like to say is that perhaps it’s kind of related to what we were discussing in your previous question is like, when we do linguistics, for example, or when we are doing linguistics, or when we are doing fieldwork, for example, I think it’s good not to think much about our needs in gathering data, for example. Maybe we should think about the community, community’s needs, or the needs of those speakers of that language. I think one of the things that we have seen, for example, like we care about the language, we care about the data, but maybe we don’t think about those speakers of those languages. So I think that’s one of my suggestions, so one of my ideas there when it comes to this idea.

The other is like how to collaborate with community members, for example. In Guatemala, people talk about linguistic extraction. Maybe it’s… That’s not the… I mean, kind of the idea of how we can change that, maybe it’s not about extracting that information, but again, how to give back that knowledge, or how we can collaborate with those speakers, for example, or in other words, how we can train them so they are in a better position to collaborate with us, for example, based on their interest. Maybe it’s good to stop in a moment and stop worrying too much about theories. Like we talk about theories, for example, in linguistics, theory X, Y, and things like that, and then we take that theory in our head, and then we go into the community and trying to apply that there. Maybe it’s like… I’m not against any theory, of course, but maybe it’s kind of doing the opposite, for example, like how to… Try to understand the language, for example, and then maybe think about the vitality of the language of those speakers, for example, in your work. So in this case, kind of how to balance your research or your own work and your ideas and with the needs of those communities, and of course, it’s important to remind ourselves about some principles, for example. Respect. So respect the community, build a relationship with that community, but most importantly, like how to help each other, in this case how we can meet our needs as linguists, and also how we can meet the community’s needs.

MTB: Yeah.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: So I think that’s how I would answer that question.

MTB: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Do you have any advice that you would give someone who’s just starting out who has an interest in working in Mayan languages, like insider or outsider, and like an early career linguist, you, what would you say to them?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, thank you for this question. I think the first thing that I would suggest, like read about the culture and read about Mayan languages, for example. There are a lot of work that have been done in these languages, so there are tons of descriptive grammars, dictionaries, for example, and also there are studies from different theoretical perspectives. I think you have, will have a kind of general idea. So having a general idea of those will really help you to do your fieldwork before going to the community, for example.

One thing that I would suggest, like contacting community leaders, for example. So those are the people that you should contact and who can help you in doing your fieldwork. One thing that I usually do, even though I am from Guatemala, even though I am a Mayan speaker or I belong to a Mayan community, but when I move, I go to a different community, for example, Mayan community, for example, I usually talk to the authorities of that community, so let’s say the mayor, and then introduce myself, “That’s why I’m here, and this is my name, and I’m doing this kind of work, so just in case you see me wandering around, so I will be doing this.” So in this case, you’re kind of introducing yourself and then getting the people to know you a little bit more.

And the other thing is that it’s important to keep in mind that we have… I mean, we are strangers, we are outsiders, and our culture is different from the other community’s culture, so I think here, showing respect is really important to your community or to the community where you work, so respect those, the way that those people live, the way that those people do things. So, for example, they may, you, maybe offer something to drink or eat, for example. Don’t say “no,” because people are doing, in this case Indigenous people, do their best to treat you well as their guest, and they even did, even though they don’t have it, they do their best to find it and give it to you. So I think saying “no” to something is like you’re not showing respect, and when you do that, then it’s kind of, you are kind of preventing people to work with you. So I think that will be my advice to someone who wants to start doing fieldwork in Mayan communities.

MTB: Thank you, Pedro. Thanks. Thanks so much. Well, this has been really, really nice. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I know I’ve learned a lot. Finally, where can our listeners find you online if they want to read things that you’ve written or learn more about your research?

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Yeah, thank you. I think there is some information about myself at the Linguistics Department of the University of Toronto, where I’m currently working, and also, if someone is interested to know about my work, for example, I can be reached at my email, which is pedro.mateo@utoronto.ca, so I would be happy to answer any question in that email.

MTB: Great. Okay. Thank you so much, Pedro. This has been so amazing.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Thank you so much. Thank you to you for the invitation and thank you for this conversation about doing fieldwork. We need to raise awareness about this. We know that… I mean, as linguists, we need to learn too many things.

MTB: Yeah.

Pedro Mateo Pedro: Especially about working with communities.

MTB: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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