Pomona College junior Rodrigo Ranero has received a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to fund his project "The Reclamation of Xinka." A linguistics and cognitive science major, Ranero will use the grant to help expand the teaching of Xinka language in Guatemala and assist in training school teachers to teach Xinka to school children.
The project will build on his research work last summer with the Council of Xinka People of Guatemala (COPXIG). The Xinka people of southeastern Guatemala are a distinct ethnic group from the Mayan people and their language had become extinct. In 2012, Ranero worked with COPXIG to analyze existing documents on Xinka and write the first instructional document aimed at teaching the Xinka language from scratch.
"In the textbook," explains Ranero, "we presented a writing system and introduced the language's phonology in a user-friendly way designed to be practical for teachers and school children. The Ministry of Education officially approved the document and funding from Pomona College covered the expenses to design and develop workshops oriented towards educating school teachers both on the importance of promoting the use of Xinka and on the effective application of the new pedagogical material."
"As someone trained in linguistics, my work was to advise the community on how to approach the reclamation effort, but all decisions regarding the language – such as the writing system, standardization of a certain dialect, etc. – were left to the community leaders."
The materials created last summer have already benefitted more than 600 schoolteachers in the state of Santa Rosa, reports Ranero. The Davis grant will allow Ranero and COPXIG to design two more textbooks and two exercise books that will provide a complete introduction to the basics of the Xinka language in a user friendly form. The first new textbook will cover word formation in the language, while the second will cover the basics of sentence formation and everyday speech. In addition, says Ranero, "the instructional workshops for school teachers will be expanded to include the new material as well as training on getting across to students the importance of language preservation as a pathway to reinforcing group identity, prestige, and solidarity. We will also produce audio recordings that will facilitate the comprehension of sounds in Xinka, which are not present in Spanish." The new work will also include the formation of neologisms for words that do not exist in Xinka, primarily in the realm of technology, medicine, and education."
Ranero is fluent in Spanish, English and Italian; has studied French, Mandarin and German; and done fieldwork on Kuria (Bantu) and Maay (Cushitic). He is particularly interested in Xinka because it is one of only two minority non-Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala – Garífuna being the other – and because it is unrelated to any other language in the world.
Ranero's future plans include attending graduate school to pursue a PhD in linguistics focusing on theoretical syntax. "I wish to carry out fieldwork on poorly described and endangered languages, coupling theoretical analysis with preservation efforts,"he says. "I really believe that linguists should use their training to halt the loss of languages worldwide."
He cites his great research experiences with Pomona Professors Mary Paster and Michael Diercks and the encouragement of Frauke Sachse (author of Reconstructive Description of Eighteenth-century Xinka Grammar) as convincing him to continue his linguistics studies.
For Ranero, "The most rewarding aspect of the Xinka project has been seeing how fruitful last summer's work with COPXIG turned out. The fact that our work is already being used to teach Xinka in schools across the state of Santa Rosa gives COPXIG and I hope that the language will not be forgotten, and that our work model could be used by other communities wishing to reclaim their language."
The Davis Projects for Peace, funded by Kathryn W. Davis, are an initiative for students to design grassroots projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict among parties. Applicants are encouraged to use their creativity to design projects and employ innovative techniques for engaging project participants in ways that focus on conflict resolution, reconciliation, building understanding, breaking down barriers which cause conflict, and finding solutions for resolving conflict and maintaining peace.
For related information, see Pomona's Summer Undergraduate Research Program, where you can find lists of recent summer projects.