Kinyarwanda: Uvuye he?

Where are you coming from? The answer to this question is Kigali. On the two and a half hour ride north to Musanze, the bus always stops here in Nyirangara for people to buy snacks and pee.

Interviewed by Zach Rhoads on the Social Exchange Podcast

Recently, I was interviewed by Zach Rhoads, a long-time friend of mine and host/creater of the Social Exchange Podcast, about my experiences learning local languages in Guatemala and Rwanda. In the interview, I talk about some of the unique features of these languages, different ways to approach language revitalization and how one’s worldview, which is tightly intertwined with language, may have an effect on one’s mental health.

Macuiltianguis Zapotec

While attending CoLang (The Institute on Collaborative Language Research), I had the chance to spend three weeks documenting a Mesoamerican language called Macuiltianguis Zapotec which is spoken in Oaxaca Mexico. It is a tonal language that can be whistled. Zapotec has certain features that a lot of Mesoamerican languages, including Mayan languages share, which, hopefully I’ll get to in another post.

Zapotec isn’t a single language but a language family, like Mayan. People debate how many distinct Zapotecan languages there are, and the estimates run from around 10 to more than 50. It’s hard to say where one language ends and the next begins.

During part of the Zapotec practicum, we illicited vocabulary related to health, disease and the human body. One similarity between Zapotecan and Mayan languages is their use of body parts as/in place of prepositions. Technically, English does this too, just not as much (aka in back of, behind). In Macuiltianguis Zapotec, for example, le’e (stomach) means inside.

One of our instructors has her own blog on Macuiltianguis Zapotec, and she wrote several posts about the practicum, in Zapotec and English. Check it out here.


When a plant or animal species goes extinct, the creative force of biology hasn’t gone away. Every living thing is still a manifestation of the mysterious force that we call biology, which underlies the different species that we see on the surface level. 99% of our DNA is shared. And underneath all of the living species, which seem to be completely different and distinct from one another, all living things are connected. “We can divide life into 3 or 5 or a million categories,” wrote biologist Lynn Margulis. “But life itself will elude us.”

The same goes for languages. All languages are the same language. Like branches of a tree. They’re a reflection of the human mind. And as seemingly diverse as they are, they’re not actually separate from one another. They’re more like viruses that exchange segments of DNA. That’s why it’s hard to tell exactly where K’iche’ ends and Kaqchikel begins. When a language ceases to be spoken, it’s not like it’s gone forever, because it’s part of something greater than itself.

Nevertheless, ecosystems are important. The loss of linguistic diversity and plant and animal species diversity today  is reflective of a modern mindset that is driven by individualism and reductionism. And it’s symbolic that indigenous languages, which hold a great deal of wisdom within them about how things are connected holistically, are disappearing.

In the modern world, people are getting very caught up in identity, and people are using languages politically as a banner of identity to set themselves apart, as if to say, this is our cultural property, this is what makes us different from you. Whereas when you look at languages and within languages, they do a better job of demonstrating how we’re connected. And not suprisingly, when you learn someone else’s language, you connect with them.

Taking time to reflect

Dear readers,

I am taking a little time to reflect on this blog before continuing to post.

When it comes to indigenous languages and cultures, there are no doubt some people who believe these things should not be made public, that it is disrespectful to the culture and the language to publicize it and put it all over the internet when it is something that should belong only to the community. I’ve mentioned previously my thoughts about ownership of culture. Nevertheless, I believe in the importance of respect.

In line with that, I have some concerns about misrepresenting cultures and/or projecting my own personal values and beliefs onto other cultures. For example, I have written about Mayan languages reflecting the interconnectedness of things and the significance of small actions. I am only offering my perspective. I do not consider myself to be an authority when it comes to culture and language.

I am concerned about the trend to divide the world into black and white categories like indigenous and non-indigenous, insiders and outsiders, people of color and white people for political power. These kinds of terms are difficult to define. Admittedly, sometimes the use of them is necessary. But focusing excessively on such distinctions has great potential to cause division and conflict about who is what and the implications of that. I’m not trying to take away anyone’s identity, and I agree that identity is important. But I struggle with viewing the world in such black and white terms. People are people, and getting attached to undefinable and broad politically-charged identities is setting us up for trouble.

These are all things I need to reflect on before continuing with this blog. I wanted this blog to be a means of generating enthusiasm about languages and linguistic diversity, and about what Western people (another term that is difficult to define) can learn from local or indigenous languages throughout the world, not in terms of morphology and syntax, but in terms of perspectives through which to conceptualize the world and make sense out of life. Maybe that is cultural appropriation, and if so I guess I’m guilty of that, because I believe, though some may disagree, that indigenous knowledge belongs to all of humanity.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I welcome your feedback.

Indigenous languages and diabetes

Everybody has been gifted with the ‘how’ (knowledge), to deal with themselves and we have to realize that. We have to get back to that. Every Nation in this country and in this world has been gifted with that ability. Even the animals know how to heal themselves… Indian people were like that. They healed themselves, but times have changed. [qualitative excerpt from 1 below]

Everybody has to have a sense of belonging. Everybody has to feel like they’re part of something. And if you don’t, where are you going to end up? Probably on the street and homeless because you think nobody cares. And that’s not just Aboriginal people, that’s all people. They NEED to have a sense of belonging… You have a sense of pride because you have a sense of belonging. That is the value in our culture and in an individualistic world you don’t have that. [qualitative excerpt from 1 below]

Below are two papers worth reading on the connection between indigenous languages and diabetes. In the first, indigenous language use is shown to correlate negatively with diabetes in Alberta First Nations (though not demonstrating causation) after conducting qualitative interviews with indigenous people on the meaning of cultural continuity and its relationship with health. The excerpts from the interviews are worth reading. The second paper discusses opportunities for language revitalization within the context of international development in Mayan language communities where the prevalence of diabetes is high.

  1. Oster, R. T., Grier, A., Lightning, R., Mayan, M. J., & Toth, E. L. Cultural continuity, traditional Indigenous language, and diabetes in Alberta First Nations: a mixed methods study. International Journal for Equity in Health, Vol. 13, No. 92, 2014, pp. [1]-11.
  2. Henderson, Brent, Peter Rohloff, and Robert Henderson. 2014. More than Words: Towards a Development-Based Approach to Language Revitalization. Language Documentation & Conservation. 8:75-91More Than Words: Towards a Development Approach to Language Revitalization


Same blog, different name

I have changed the domain name of this website from to This new name better represents what the blog is all about – languages. I am not a linguist, and the languages that I’m interested in are not exclusively indigenous languages. Furthermore, as I’ve written about previously in this blog, it’s not entirely clear to me what criteria make a language indigenous or not indigenous. Given the politically charged nature of that word and its potential for misuse, I have opted not to use it in the domain name.