Language is a big part of the work that Wuqu’ Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance does, but it doesn’t often play center stage in our public outreach. This isn’t because studying, teaching, and using Mayan languages isn’t as important as our work improving healthcare for Mayas, in fact, the former makes the latter possible. No, the reason is that language tends to float out of focus unless something calls your attention to it.
Just think about what we’re doing right now. I’m producing English, you’re comprehending it, and feels so natural that you wouldn’t have even noticed had I not brought it to your attention. Even after you finish reading this blog and go about your day, you won’t be conscious of the fact that language underlies almost everything you do. This is the privilege of speaking a majority language like English or Spanish.
Native speakers of Mayan languages only get to feel this way at home or among friends. Going to school, or going to court, or going to the doctor are alien and alienating experiences. Imagine you’re a speaker of a language threatened with extinction by the end of the century. Now imagine you’re sick and have to be in the hospital. You long for the comfort of home, but this world is at its heart uncomfortable because the language is foreign. What did that doctor say again about the medicine you’re supposed to take? You heard your diagnoses, but who knows that that means! Ah, you’re supposed to come back for a follow up . . . but do you really want to come back to this place? This is the lived experience of many of our patients, and it’s something Wuqu’ Kawoq | Mayan Health Alliance is trying to change.
If you think that patients are more likely to put their confidence in a doctor that speaks their language, you should care about language.
If you think that indigenous people have a right to sustain their living cultures, you should care about language.
If you think that NGOs should do their work in ways that do not undermine the communities in which they work, you should care about language.
If you think that community disintegration is a barrier to development, you should care about language.
This month is language month for Wuqu’ Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance. All of these issues and more will be on our mind. We’ll be blogging, and tweeting, and talking about language issues in Guatemala. We’ll be showing you how our language work is important in its own right, but also how it supports what we do improving health and alleviating poverty in indigenous communities.