Rodrigo Ranero, Pomona College Class of 2014, will study linguistics at Cambridge on the prestigious Downing Scholarship.
Through a special arrangement between the two institutions, the award underwrites a year-long exchange sending one Pomona graduate annually to earn a master's degree at Downing College at the University of Cambridge.
Ranero, who graduated as a linguistics and cognitive science major, will pursue a masters of philosophy in theoretical and applied linguistics. His interest in syntax was heightened by Professor Mary Paster's field studies class, which gives students the opportunity to converse with native speakers of an unfamiliar language and attempt to describe the language from scratch.
"I loved working for five semesters with Johnes Kitololo, a speaker of Kuria, to document his language," says Ranero. "Working together with him on aspects of the syntax of Kuria, a Bantu language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania, was crucial in convincing me to pursue linguistic research after Pomona."
In his junior year, he assisted Professor Paster in a partnership with the Rumsen, a native California tribe, to start a reclamation project for their language. Since 2012, he has also worked closely with the Xinka, an indigenous community in his home country of Guatemala, on an effort to revitalize their ancestral language, which had all but gone extinct.
Through the Xinka project, which was launched by a grant from Pomona's Summer Undergraduate Research Program, Ranero and his collaborators have published several Xinka-language textbooks and developed a curriculum to teach the language to schoolchildren throughout the Xinka region. In 2013, he was awarded grants from the Davis Projects for Peace and the Strauss Foundation to continue the campaign.
At Cambridge, Ranero will continue to develop strategies for recovering threatened indigenous languages, in part through courses on language death and language acquisition.
"Language reclamation is a tool for historically-oppressed peoples to recover a heritage that was denied to them," Ranero says. "Through the reclamation of a language, a community is able to assert their existence and revive an aspect of their culture that would otherwise be forgotten forever."
After his year at Downing, Ranero plans to enter a Ph.D. program in linguistics. His ultimate aim, he says, is to return to Guatemala and carry out fieldwork with speakers of Mayan languages to further analyze syntax. At the same time, he hopes to create a program that will train members of the country's many language groups in methods and strategies that they can use to preserve their linguistic heritage.