As more Mayan language speakers flee from Guatemala to the U.S., immigration professionals and interpreting services providers must adapt to the added challenge of dealing with these new language barriers.
Over 20 Indigenous Languages
Many of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who migrated from Central America this past year don’t speak English or Spanish. A large number are from Guatemala’s indigenous communities where over 20 regional languages are spoken. The language barrier is one of many challenges that these immigrants must face. If they are allowed to stay, the issue is further complicated by lack of resources in their new country of residence.
Mayan | Language Learning Centers
Due to poverty as well as dangers related to staying in their own hometowns, many Guatemalan children flee to the U.S., where, if they are fortunate, they are sent to places like the Guatemalan Mayan Center in Lake Worth, Florida. Classes here are conducted in both Spanish and English, but for many of these children both of these languages are foreign to them.
Mayan | They Don’t Speak Spanish?
Many people in the U.S. assume that if someone is from Latin America, they must speak Spanish. The reality is that a large number of these children do not speak Spanish, but instead one of the indigenous Mayan regional dialects which are largely unrelated to Spanish.
The Mayan language family, composed of 69 related languages, is primarily spoken in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Divided into six branches, these languages are thought to have originated from a common ancestral language spoken 5,000 years ago by the people of the Mayan Empire. Many still in use today are spoken as a first or second language by the six million indigenous people residing in the region. In Guatemala alone there are approximately 22 Mayan ethnic groups, and each group has its own spoken language or dialect.
Multiple Mayan Dialects
Each Mayan language has several spoken variations or dialects, which gives some perspective to the complexity of the communication barrier. Among the most commonly spoken languages, Kaqchikel has 10 dialects, Tzotzil has 6, Mam has 5, and Ixilan 4. In present day Guatemala, Mayans speak about 20 different languages. Many of these languages differ significantly from each other. For example, each community may speak its own dialect of Kaqchikel, which is mutually intelligible with other dialects of Kaqchikel but only partly intelligible with K’iche, the most widely spoken Mayan language with around a million speakers.
High Demand for Interpreters
As the number of children coming to the U.S. from Central American countries continues to rise, the issue of language has become more critical. Child service agencies, government holding centers, schools, and other refugee institutions are facing the challenge of locating interpreters to overcome communication barriers. The main hurdle they are coming across is that there may not be enough interpreters to meet the growing numbers, and that interpreters may not be fluent in a particular needed Mayan language or dialect.
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