Spanish Professor Showcases Research on Mayan Language and Culture


Students, faculty, and community members gathered on Nov. 29 to hear Assistant Professor of Spanish Professor Brandon Baird present on his work as part of the Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture Series. In a talk titled “Unequivocally Authentic: Mayan Language and Identity in Modern Guatemala,” Baird presented on his recent linguistic research in Guatemala and the contemporary implications of his results.

Baird’s was the last faculty lecture of the fall semester, and many of his students were in attendance. A Middlebury faculty member since the fall of 2014, he is currently teaching classes in the Spanish and Linguistics departments. His research interests include Hispanic linguistics, Mayan linguistics, phonetics, phonology, bilingualism, and sociolinguistics. Next semester, Baird will be teaching two courses titled “Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World” and “The Sounds of Language: Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology.”

Baird posed the question of how languages are lost among native populations and used bilingualism, or the action of picking up another language, as a bridge toward language loss. For many Spanish-speaking immigrants to the U.S., for example, the first generation of the family is monolingual in the native language, the second generation is bilingual in the native language and English and the third generation is monolingual in English. “Grandparents and grandchildren may not speak the same language,” Baird said. Discussing language dominance, he used the term diglossia, which he defined as when two languages are used under different conditions within a community. Individuals tend to be more dominant in one language than the other, and may use one language at home and the other at work, for example.

According to Baird, he is often asked if anyone still speaks the Mayan language. Contrary to common misconception, he explained, there are 32 distinct Mayan languages, 30 of which are still spoken today. Baird’s research focuses on K’iche’ language, which one million people in Guatemala speak. Baird summarized the recent language policies of the country. In 2003, the Law on National Languages declared Spanish as the official language of Guatemala but recognized the importance of indigenous languages to national identity. However, according to Baird, the law has not been effective in promoting and preserving indigenous languages.

“These people aren’t able to use their language in certain necessary aspects of their lives,” he said, referring to the lack of interpreters in the national court system, among other critical social services.

Baird’s research was conducted in two Guatemalan communities, the rural area of Nahualá and the urban area of Cantel. Using quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews as methods of data collection, Baird sought to discover linguistic correlations with language dominance. The quantitative results showed that the population of the more urban area of Cantel tends to be more Spanish dominant, while Nahualá tends to be more K’iche’ dominant.

“The younger [the people] are, the greater tendency there is for them to be Spanish dominant,” Baird said. While many residents speak K’iche’ at home with family, they tend to use Spanish at school and work, drawing attention to a diglossia between Spanish and K’iche’.

The qualitative results illustrated the value of bilingualism and a motivation among the residents to continue speaking K’iche’.

“Someone who speaks two languages is worth two people,” a Cantel resident commented in the survey. There is an important value assigned to learning Spanish for job opportunities and to communicate with people such as doctors and judges. Finally, the results demonstrated a fear of the loss of K’iche’ language and culture, especially as other cultural traditions shift to adapt to the modern era. For example, Baird said that men in Guatemala tend not to wear traditional clothing anymore.

Baird concluded his lecture with a hopeful outlook. While there is a diglossia between Spanish and K’iche’, members of the population have been promoting their native culture and pushing the native language in sports and music. Baird brought his findings to an American context by drawing a parallel between the situation in Guatemala and the current attitudes towards English as the national language of the U.S in today’s political climate. While immigrants in the U.S. find English to be very vital to their new lives, he said, they also express the necessity to preserve their native languages.

“You can’t shut off their language and expect [people] to do better,” he said.