Conversations With Real Live Bilinguals: Mi Maestra Teresa

I’m excited to introduce to you my Guatemalan Spanish teacher, Teresa, who is patiently teaching me four hours of Spanish every day and listening to me mangle various verb forms without completely losing it! She’s a total champ.

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 Teresa is also a Real Live Bilingual, speaking Tzutujil, the local Maya language spoken in San Pedro and a few other towns around Lake Atitlan, as her first language, and Spanish (all while dabbling in English she’s picked up from her students).

Below you can see that Tzutujil is spoken only around Lake Atitlan (towards the southwest corner).


The Tzutujil region is on the south side of the lake as demonstrated in the next map from Tzutujil Grammar by Jon P. Dayley:

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Pretty crazy that towns just a few minute’s boat rides from each other speak entirely different languages! But that’s for another post.

Here below is my interview with Teresa. Since I didn’t have a tape recorder and since I would have translated it later anyway, I listened to her responses and translated them on the spot into English. Enjoy!

What is your full name?

Elvia Teresa González Chavajay

Where were you born?

In San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

What is your mother tongue?

Tzutujil is my mother tongue, it’s one of the Maya languages in Guatemala. My second language is Spanish.

Was it hard for you to learn Spanish?

At the time it was kind of hard because when I was a kid at home we only spoke Tzutujil. When I was little there weren’t very many people in San Pedro who spoke Spanish. It was a foreign language for us! Our teachers were Ladinos and weren’t from San Pedro, so if we spoke Tzutujil in school they would scold us. 

Side note: The Ladino have been recognized as a distinct ethnic group in Guatemala, and are officially described as the following: …”a heterogenous population which expresses itself in the Spanish language as a maternal language, which possesses specific cultural traits of Hispanic origin mixed with indigenous cultural elements, and dresses in a style commonly considered as western.”

What language do you think in? Dream in?

I think in both English and Spanish, it just depends. My dreams are more in Tzutujil, I think it’s just more like real life!

What language do you feel more comfortable speaking in?

It depends on the moment. It’s difficult in this case…With my colleagues, for example, it’s more comfortable or natural to speak Tzutujil because we are relaxed speaking it among each other, we have more slang. It can tire us to speak Spanish and it’s just a custom we have to speak Tzutujil when we’re with each other.

Are there words that you can’t translate into either language? Are there some words you just don’t know in Tzutujil?

Oh yes, there are a lot of words that I don’t know in Tzutujil. Only the really old people in their 80s and 90s speak it absolutely perfectly. There are some things in Tzutujil that we just say in Spanish. Like, I just learned the word for la mesa in Tzutujil, I always just said mesa even when I was speaking Tzutujil. The word for la mesa apparently is wa’wba’l, which literally means “the place where you eat”.  And now that more young people are studying and developing the language, there are new words. For instance, now a television is te’lawa’ch. Wach comes from ‘eyes’ so the word for TV has to do with the eyes watching the something. It’s good that more people are taking an interest in really learning Tzutujil these days.

Sometimes Spanish is really important to fill in the blanks for what we don’t know in Tzutujil! This is because we adults never had formal training in the language, although all kids in Guatemala do now. My children take Tzutujil and sometimes it really kills them! In San Pedro people speak a lot of Spanish, but it other towns where they only speak a Maya language they speak much better. Sometimes the radio stations in Santiago will broadcast riddles in Tzutujil for the listeners to solve, and they are really hard! For example, what is long, is round at one end, and works hard at night? Haha, no…wrong….it’s una linterna (a flashlight)!

What do you speak with your parents? With your kids?

My mom speaks a little Spanish, not a whole lot, but she understands, she just has trouble expressing herself. She only went to school from age 10 – 14. But one of my aunts, she never went to school and she has no idea how to speak Spanish.

I speak Spanish and Tzutujil with my kids, but more Spanish. Their dad didn’t speak Tzutujil because he wasn’t from San Pedro, so we just spoke Spanish in the home. He didn’t want them to speak it, his family were Ladino so they only spoke Spanish. Anyway, at this point it’s just easier to speak to them in Spanish, they don’t understand all the words in Tzutujil so I’d have to translate for them anyway. My daughter speaks okay Tzutujil but her accent isn’t so good. 

Do you feel different when you speak Tzutujil than when you speak Spanish?

No, I don’t feel different. With certain people I would feel weird speaking Spanish over Tzutujil with. But I’ve spoken Spanish for a long time, it feels like a part of me.

What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue?

The family, culture, traditions I definitely associate with Tzutujil. It helps us stick with our origins.

Do you think you speak good, refined Tzutujil?

Refined? Yes, I think I sound refined, I speak good Tzutujil with a good accent. But do I speak 100% pure Tzutujil? No, I have to use a lot of Spanish words. But it’s so interesting the different varieties of Tzutujil, for instance, in San Pedro, we say tef for cold. In San Juan, they say tep. The towns are five minutes apart but we do speak differently!

What other languages would you like to learn?

English is very important but I really want to learn Hebrew (well, to speak it, not to write it!). 

Sidenote: Many Maya languages have similar phonologies/sounds to Hebrew, and I’ve heard several Guatemalans say that they would like to learn Hebrew! It also helps that Israeli tourists have a stronghold in Central America. Lots of glottal stops and plosive sounds in both languages.

 Can you teach us something in Tzutujil?

Q’as q’a tibo’look’ ja yaki’! It means Que linda bebe! Or, in English, what a beautiful baby!

Something naughty?

Okay, to say Te quiero mucho (I love you) is Ni’fuerte nat. Oops, you see, we even use Spanish here! [Fuerte is not a word in Tzutujil but in this expression has apparently been replaced the word for fuerte in Tzutujil] Okay, here is a more pure way to say it: Ni conguana nat’nawjo’.

Maltiox (Gracias) Teresa!

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals, Culture, Dialects, Indigenous Cultures, Language, Learning Languages, Multilingualism, Portfolio, Spanish, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Conversations With Real Live Bilinguals: Mi Maestra Teresa

  1. Pingback: Six Weeks in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala | Language and other musings

  2. Pingback: Alice’s Guide to Guatemala | Language and other musings

  3. Pingback: Guatemala | A Guide to Guatemala for the Bausse In You

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