Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Nahuatl as a Classical, Foreign, and Additional Language: A Phenomenological Study

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Nahuatl as a Classical, Foreign, and Additional Language: A Phenomenological Study

Article excerpt

According to Nettle and Romaine (2000), the diversity of the world's languages is rapidly disappearing as speakers of minority language groups face mounting pressures to abandon their mother tongues. One of these languages, the Nahuatl language (primarily spoken within the borders of Mexico) is undergoing a shift in attitudes and interests among non-native speakers as a surge in both participants and programs have appeared with technology continuing to offer access to even the remotest locations (Abley, 2005; Eisenlohr, 2004). This surge is important given the relatively low level of prestige many of the language members and majority language speakers feel toward Nahuatl (Navarrette, 2003). For this study, I focused on the experiences of non-native learners (who are a part of this surge) as they acquire this endangered language. These learners are in a position to influence the revitalization efforts for this language group by providing meaningful work for the indigenous educators, ensuring the language is recorded in multiple formats for future generations and supporting the growth of the community's efforts.

What is the Nahuatl Language?

The Nahuatl language was the language of the Aztec empire before and after the Conquest of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in 1520 (Ruiz, 1992). It has been considered one of the most documented Indigenous languages in the Northern Hemisphere (Lockhart, 2001). The people associated with the Nahuatl language also have a long history, including a centuries-long written tradition that strongly influenced the Spanish language and the population living within the borders of modern-day Mexico. Today, Nahuatl speakers number in the hundreds of thousands and are spread throughout the Republic of Mexico. After the Spanish language, Nahuatl has around 1 million speakers, on par with speakers of the Mayan languages (Cifuentes & Moctezuma, 2006).

The language itself is a member of the Aztec-Tanoan family on the Uto-Aztecan branch and linguistically described as agglutinating and poly-synthetic. Agglutination refers to a type of language where grammatical relationships are expressed by affixation rather than through the addition of separate words or phrases. Poly-synthetic (versus analytic, like English) refers to the high ratio of affixations within individual words or phrases. Here is an example to demonstrate the difference between English and Nahuatl: I am a woman. In written form, this example contains four words to complete the thought. As an English speaker, I can change the meaning of this sentence by adding other words (or morphemes). For instance, I can change I am a woman to I am not a woman and the addition of the negative marker not changes the meaning of the sentence. In Nahuatl, that same sentence would be a phrase made up of various affixes in this form: Nicihuatl or Axnicihuatl. I can divide this phrase linguistically into the following affixes in Table 1.

Some learners have difficulty with agglutinating languages because they have to learn to understand the look and feel of a language like Nahuatl. These same learners have this impression of Nahuatl as it is written using the example from Table 1: nicihuatl. This phrase requires the learner to read it is a whole in order to understand its meaning. By reading the phrase as a whole, I believe it would be the equivalent of reading the same meaning in English in the following way: iamawoman. This difficulty is not just in the written form, but as a learner myself I had a lot of difficulty retraining my brain to listen for the changes in affixes to figure out the meanings of various phrases. Whenever I look at a phrase in Nahuatl it seems that on some level I am looking at that phrase as if it were in English, except with characters strung together. I especially encountered this difficulty when more complex phrases needed to be learned because Nahuatl is much more than a language made up of long strings of characters. …

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