Indigenous Languages Programs at UT

The Indigenous Language Initiative at UT Austin focuses on promoting indigenous language learning at the university level. Unfortunately, many of the language courses are short-lived – most only last for two semesters. Reporter Maria Probert Hermosillo spoke to the professors and students involved in the programs.

Reported, Produced and Translated by Maria Probert Hermosillo. Episode art by Emma Berke. The artwork is based on illustrations by Joanna Maryniak for the book Tlahtolixcopincayotl by Abelardo de la Cruz and Eduardo de la Cruz Cruz. The full transcript can be found below:


*Professor De La Cruz reads a book in Nahuatl, his native tongue*

Maria Probert Hermosillo: This is Professor Eduardo De La Cruz Cruz, reading one of his novels written in his first language Nahuatl. When I met Professor De La Cruz, he was very open to sharing his work with me. He has written a children’s vocabulary book and two novels with bright colored illustrations in his language. 

The novel he is reading is about the stories his Grandfather told him. He said that when grieving, most people bring candles to pay respect, but he only wants people to bring him food when he passes away. Food for him is a symbol of life. 

Nahuatl is one of many indigenous languages of the greater American continent. It is the ancient Aztec language that is spoken contemporarily by more than one million people in Mexico, Central America, and the US.

Among the 36 languages that the University of Texas offers, there is the Indigenous Language Initiative or ILI. ILI focuses on providing indigenous language courses to students along with cultural education.

This year, the initiative provides Nahuatl, and there are 9 students enrolled. 

Although the students taking these languages are often very immersed and take great value from the classes, these languages usually have a short expiration date at the University. 

*Eduardo De La Cruz speaks in Nahuatl* 

Maria, translating for Professor Eduardo De La Cruz: Hi my name is Eduardo De La Cruz, I’m originally from Chicontepec, Veracruz. I currently have a contract for teaching Nahuatl for two years. I dedicate myself to teaching my mother tongue. 

Maria: Professor De La Cruz previously taught at the University of Zacatecas while leading Nahuatl summer workshops in US colleges. He was invited by the former director of the initiative, Dr. Kelly McDonough, to teach the language. This upcoming spring semester marks the end of his two year contract teaching Nahuatl at UT. 

Professor Eduardo De La Cruz: I think trying to have more permanence and a more static, solid continuance of these languages would be good, I know from experience that students that have been exposed to these languages would like to continue learning at a higher level. Since they only offer them for one determined period, there is no way for them to continue, so there is the issue of how to solve this and find ways to have multiple indigenous languages, not just focus on one. 

Maria: The initiative did not originally set out to have limited time frames for the languages. 

Sergio Romero: It really has to do with the nature of indigenous languages, there are so many of them, that it’s really hard to offer a program and to keep it to make it sustainable. So we are working under pressure from, you know, the university, so we need to enroll a certain minimum of students per course. And we often don’t make it, we have five, six, seven, students, but that’s not sustainable. The university wants at least 15 students. 

Maria: That is Sergio Romero, the current Director of ILI. Romero is from Guatemala and speaks four indigenous languages. He is a professor of linguistics and has always been interested in the many variations and families of indigenous languages. This is him introducing himself in K’icheʼ, one of the many Mayan languages. 

*Sergio Romero introduces himself in K’icheʼ* 

Sergio Romero: What we’re seeking to accomplish was to find a way to make indigenous languages more important in our curriculum, to give them a place that will be worthy of the role they play in Latin American society. 

Maria: Apart from Nahuatl, another important indigenous language spoken by roughly 12 million people today is Quechua. Quechua isn’t offered this year, but current graduate student Jermani Ojeda-Ludena taught the course last year. 

Quechua is known as the language of the Inca’s but was present in South America since before the empire came to power. It was largely spread during the colonization and christianization of the Spanish conquest. 

*Jermani introduction in Quechua*

Maria, translating for Jermani Ojeda-Ludena: My name is Jermani Ojeda-Ludena, I’m from the Apurímac region now known as Peru which is a Quechua zone. I am currently studying my program of Iberian and Latin American languages and cultures. 

Maria: Jermani is a young passionate journalist who identifies as Quechua. He shared with me his experience growing up in Peru, and reclaiming his language in college, after not learning the language academically since elementary school. After teaching at the University of Delaware, he currently works at UT. 

Jermani: It was a very beautiful experience for two semesters teaching undergrad and graduate students. It lasted a year, but I hope that further on the program opens up again. 

And maybe if I keep dreaming, universities like UT have a permanent program of indigenous languages, because there is a lot of current studies about indigenous issues, so if there is a lot of interest in indigenous studies then the languages should be taught as well. 

Maria:  The classroom, for both Professor De La Cruz and Jermani, was made up of a diverse pool of interest for the indigenous languages. In Jermani’s one year course, he had seven students participating in both semesters. 

Jermani: One of my students had a family connection to the Quechuas of Ecuador, another did the course for a Quechua investigation, for example archeological field work that they had already started in the Andes, so the language is necessary to investigate the Andes zone, Quechua is the door to understanding the Andes. 

Maria: To accommodate for the variety of students, Professor De La Cruz’s class gives a lot of importance to cultural learning. For Katey Shumann, a previous student of De La Cruz and a third year PhD student of Mesoamerican arts, the language was required for her studies. 

Katey Shumann: He teaches the language pretty rigorously. But he also includes some cultural elements that he likes to teach us about in the course, as well. Like, for instance, we made a plate pan, which is the altar that you make for the day of the dead ceremonies. And we did that in class one day, and it was an absolutely amazing experience.  

That class in particular was incredibly cooperative. And, like, helpful, like when I first started that class, my Spanish was very rusty. And there are a bunch of other Anglophone students in that class. And so every once in a while, you know, it would be me, and you know, a couple other students with poor Spanish speaking skills, and, and we would just all really help each other out. 

*Erik introduces himself in Nahuatl* 

Maria: Government and Latin American studies Sophomore Erik Clay Peterson is taking Professor De La Cruz’s class this year. For him, taking Nahuatl classes was fueled by personal curiosity. 

Erik Clay Peterson: There’s not a whole lot of opportunities to, you know, to study indigenous languages, you know, in Texas, not very many universities teach it and, you know, nationwide. 

Maria: For these passionate students whose language courses aren’t currently offered at the university, one option is to apply for a FLAS Fellowship. There are currently UT students using FLAS to learn indigenous languages not provided by the University. 

FLAS Fellowships are government funds used to sponsor student studies in a specific language that might not be offered in their university, or a more advanced level language learning than the student’s university provides. 

Sergio Romero, the Director of the indigenous language initiative, is in charge of overseeing that the fellowships offered to UT students go smoothly. 

Sergio Romero: Usually when we do this, it’s online. So the teacher meets with the student twice or three times a week. And I tend to supervise this. 

Maria: Most FLAS Fellowships go towards African languages, Central Asian languages, Russian, and Mandarin or Cantonese. 

Sergio Romero: it’s mostly a way to develop instruction in languages that are important strategically for the United States. 

Maria: Romero argues, however, that learning an indigenous language is politically important due to the influx of migrants who are only speakers of indigenous languages. 

Sergio Romero: Most Americans are not aware of this, they think that you know, all Mexicans or Guatemalans speak Spanish, but that’s not the case. Many of them actually speak very little Spanish. Like if you wanted to study law, or, you know, education policies in Texas, or even, you know, health issues, you will definitely run into speakers of indigenous languages. 

Maria: Professor Romero shared with me the possibility of integrating workshops into ILI, that will connect students with migrants in Texas that only speak indigenous languages. 

One current example of a FLAS Fellowship opportunity is with a non-profit organization focused on Nahuatl called IDIEZ. Professor De La Cruz is the director of this non-profit. At his office he showed me the still photographs from the yearly 6 week summer intensive course at the University of Utah, that include invited artists and cultural presentations. UT students have been a part of this in the past. 

Not only that, but these intensive courses also help fund some of the organization’s independent projects focused on community building in Professor De La Cruz’s native mountainous Huasteca Nahuatl area. 

Professor De La Cruz: Suppose that you are a Nahuatl level two student that wants to improve their learning, we invite you to teach English in a Nahuatl speaking community to children who don’t want to speak their original language, but who do want to learn another language, so they learn English and at the same time are obligated to practice their own mother tongue.

*Jessica Sanchez introduces herself in Nahuatl* 

Maria: One recurring student of Professor De La Cruz, Jessica Sanchez, a graduate student of the Spanish and Portuguese department, participated in the English workshop. 

Jessica Sanchez: A few of them are shy or timid speaking Nahuatl, even though they understand it very well. But when they hear me say something wrong, they’re like, no, it’s actually like this. I thought that it was nice that they are taking ownership and initiative speaking the language in front of others. I get to not only have the community know me, but also give back to the community that has given me so much.

Maria: For Jessica, learning the language and participating in these opportunities holds personal value as well. 

Jessica Sanchez: I have grandmothers and great grandmother’s that are Nahuatl and I wanted to connect more with my heritage and with that side of my family history.

Maria: Professor De La Cruz has noticed that recent generations are looking to find themselves through their indigenous heritage.

Professor De La Cruz: When we don’t find an identity, we refer back to the past of our grandparents or ancestors and that’s when there is a personal interest in studying the language, and I think that happens with Maya and Quechua as well. 

Maria: Erik wants to continue his studies of Nahuatl, but he only has one more semester to take Professor De La Cruz’s class, so he plans to apply for the FLAS Fellowship in the future.

Erik Clay Peterson:  I consider myself pretty fortunate to have, you know, come to UT at the time that it was offered. And, I wasn’t aware that it was going to, you know, only be offered for two years. So if it wasn’t for me being so insistent on that I probably would have said okay, I’ll wait another year, and then it will be too late. 

Maria: As for Professor De La Cruz, he is looking to expand IDIEZ summer courses to Harvard and plans to teach elsewhere after finishing his time at UT. 

*Nahuatl song plays* 

Maria: Another way that the Indigenous Language Initiative is trying to help students who want to continue their indigenous language education is through providing online materials. 

While online K’icheʼ and Nahuatl materials are already offered, Jermani, the former Quechua instructor, is currently one of the people involved in creating the new and upcoming Quechua materials. 

Jermani Ojeda-Ludena: We are working on 15 units starting with the most basic things to understand the language. 

There won’t be an instructor, but the resources and materials will be there. 

Maria: The Materials are made with the help of COERLL, the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning, which is another initiative that focuses on dispersing language learning materials in various formats. Here’s ILI Director Sergio Romero again.

Sergio Romero: How many students have interacted with them? Well, thousands, because not everyone that has used these materials is actually a student at UT. There are a lot of people with interest. And, for example, think about teachers. There are many teachers in the US who have K’icheʼ speaking students. So they’ve used those materials. And also, there are many K’icheʼ speakers who have used the materials to teach themselves English. 

Maria: Student Jessica Sanchez worked on the Nahuatl online units, and hopes that current and past students, like Katey and Erik, will benefit from the materials. 

Katey Shumann: It’s almost like somebody has taken notes for you. It gives you all of the main points in a very succinct way. 

Professor Eduardo De La Cruz Cruz is gonna make you talk to the rest of your classmates, and you better know what you’re gonna say. 

Katey Shumann: the feeling that you get when you actually do understand it, when you’re actually having a conversation in this language is second to none. It’s like euphoria.

Erik Clay Peterson: I’ll look into it and also as a method of, of keep of practice, you know, keeping myself you know, keeping in touch with the language. 

Maria: After hearing both Professor De La Cruz and Jermani and their students passionately talk about their classes, I asked them what they would tell students to try to convince them to learn indigenous languages. Here’s what Professor De La Cruz had to say.

Professor De La Cruz: Firstly, I would tell them that studying any language is to have another vision of the world. It’s learning more than a language, but the culture of that so-called strange world. Someone studies a language and becomes entangled with the culture, they have another vision of things, they understand poverty, discrimination, and the needs of the people better. Because if one is closed off to only one world, they simply don’t experiment with other forms of life. I think that studying a language sensitizes these things. 

Maria: Jermani shared a similar sentiment.

Jermani: In the Quechua language there doesn’t exist words like nature, it’s not that it doesn’t exist, it’s simply that there is another conception of it, which is Mother Earth, which we call Pachamama. Studying an indigenous language is a part of the process of decolonization and it gives us a path to understand other life forms, other ways of life. You don’t just give more life to the language, you give the speakers of the language more life and space for discussion. 

Maria: Unlike Nahuatl where there is a lot of written documentation, written poetry, and works like Professor De La Cruz’s own novels, Jermani showed me that Quechua literature is mostly shared through word of mouth, from one generation to another. 

Jermani: In my town we are characterized by the music that we sing in the months of abundance, where there is a lot of rain and not a lot of cold weather. 

*Jermani singing song of his town* 

Jermani: The song says that I am coming here with the wind of the Andes from a mountainous zone to celebrate, to dance. And I feel that it is the story of the town. I have a lot of hope of resurging with the strength of the cold wind of the Andes mountain, and that we will come to make our language and sounds public and audible. 

*song continues* 

Jermani: Thank you and we say in Quechua, tupananchiskama, which is until we see each other again. 

Maria: This has been a production of the Daily Texan Audio Department. Reported and edited by me, Maria Probert, and supervised by audio editor Carly Rose. 

Special Thanks to Professor Eduardo De La Cruz Cruz, Sergio Romero, and Jermani Ojeda-Ludena. Also thank you to the participating students, Erik Clay Peterson, Katey Schumann, and Jessica Sanchez.

Thank you for listening.