Friday, April 11, 2008

Foreigners Don't Learn Guarani!

"We were talking with some people who were visiting our neighbor Norma. They kept trying to talk to us in Spanish, and Norma had to tell them, 'They don't understand Spanish. Speak to them in Guarani!' We suddenly realized that Paraguayans are going to expect us to talk to them in Spanish, and we're going to have to convince them to speak Guarani with us."

In fact, I had told my students on several different occasions that it's unusual for outsiders in Paraguay to learn Guarani. But there's a difference, isn't there, from being told something and experiencing it for yourself.

Guarani is uniquely Paraguayan, and Paraguayans identify with it as theirs in a way they don't do with Spanish. But it's also considered a non-prestige language and it's unusual everywhere for people to voluntarily learn a language that's less prestigious when a more prestigious one is available.

Consider, for example, Latinos in the U.S. They are expected to learn English because in the U.S. that is the more prestigious language. It's far less common for an English speaker in the U.S. to accommodate to them by speaking Spanish.

Rural Paraguayans are generally much more comfortable with and competent in Guarani, although they may feel that they ought to speak Spanish. They feel this even more strongly when they're speaking to foreigners, instinctively assuming that the foreigner will expect this.

But Guarani is the language of relationship. "Igústo nendive, porque ikatu roñe'ê nendive guaraníme," said a friend of mine; "I feel good with you, because we can talk to you in Guarani."

By learning Guarani, my students send a strong message to rural Paraguayans: your world, your culture, your identity are important to me. I don't expect you to accommodate to me. I'll make an effort, I'll even look foolish, in order to have a relationship with you in your world, in your context. I'll identify with you so that I can be your friend.

Many here expect that their country, their values will be scorned by outsiders. Some consider themselves to be residents of a backwards country. Their relationship with Guarani reflects that--they think outsiders won't value it and will consider it a primitive language. An outsider who learns Guarani surprises Paraguayans by being interested in ore ñe'ê; our language. Instinctively the Paraguayan feels, "if he's interested in my language, perhaps he's interested in me."

So my students struggle through and feel ignorant some days and perplex people because they don't do what they're expected to. And on the way, they get into their neighbors' hearts, and their neighbors get into theirs.


Jessica said...

Very interesting, well-thought blog. I lived in Paraguay for a year and begged for people to teach me more guarani! However as I was in school at the time, my family wanted me to focus on learning Spanish well! Now I am trying to learn at least a few phrases before going back to visit next year. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Andy Bowen said...

Jessica, by all means, learn as much as you can! Even a very small effort really makes an impact in terms of how Paraguayans view your level of respect and value for their culture. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
I am a Belgian student. My friend and I will be travelling across Paraguay in september this year. I would really like to learn some Guaraní before we get there, so that I could try and really talk to people, showing them my respect. I'll be glad to look foolish if I could just try :)

But I was wondering: could you perhaps recommend books with grammar and vocabulary? And where I could postorder them? Or do online lessons exist?

Your help would be much appreciated!
Thanks alot,
best greetings
Maarten from Belgium

Andy Bowen said...

Maarten: Great to hear from you, and bravo on your desire to be respectful to Paraguayans on your way through! Willingly looking foolish is a hugely better option than remaining distant because of wanting to avoid loosing the superiority of eloquence.

One question: do you speak Spanish? If so, your options increase greatly in terms of Guarani learning. I'll check out your blog to get some clues.

Anonymous said...

I do not speak Spanish fluently yet... but I've been studying it a bit on my own during this last year (because I spent some time in Chile and Argentina) and by now I can read it, but actively constructing sentences on my own is still not easy for me.

I really want to get better at it though! And at the same time I thought I could give it a go trying to get some basic Guaraní in my head because I honestly think a backpacker should make some real efforts to adapt to the surrounding in order to get the best experience for everyone! I also do sympathize with indigenous people all around the globe, so that's an extra motivation.

So if you know some helpful books or websites... that would be great!

(I just made that blog today so you won't find anything there yet, I'm sorry!)

Thanks alot!

Andy Bowen said...

I'll have to brush up a bit on my Flemish, Maarten, so I can check back on your travels ;-). Unfortunately we won't be in the country during your visit; otherwise we'd invite you to stay with us!

One site that might be of interest to you is Wolf Lustig's Die Guarani-Webseite. It can certainly get you started and give you enough resources to be able to interact a little in Guarani with Paraguayans.

A word of caution: when you're in the city, occasionally people will feel uncomfortable about being addressed in Guarani by a foreigner, and will respond in Spanish. There are Asuncenos who don't even speak Guarani, and others who will affect not to. In most rural areas people will be delighted to be spoken to in Guarani by a foreigner, and many city-dwellers will too. My advice is: try it. It might work, and if it does, the payoff is high in terms of goodwill.

Anonymous said...


thanks alot for the link to that website. I browsed the first chapter and I immediately ordered a dictionary and a phrasebook with audio cd. I am so excited when I think about the opportunity to really try to connect with Paraguayan citizens. Thanks for the caution, I will try it and if people get uncomfortable I'll switch to Spanish. But I am not afraid to try :)

If you like, I will keep you up to date about my experiences in Paraguay by adding some English extracts to my blog, so you won't have to brush up your Flemish haha :)

Best regards,

Agni University of Management said...

Paraguay is the only country in Latin America which has an official native language. I would love to learn Guarani because it gives me the opportunity to communicate with a Paraguayan population that has withstood the influence of conquerors, that have forced their language upon them. Thanks to the strenght of Paraguayans this failed in Paraguay.
Guarani is an official language in Paraguay

James Doss-Gollin said...

I'm an American who has spent time in Paraguay but hasn't picked up much [repeatable] Guarani. Can you recommend any language books? My Spanish is good, so a book in Spanish would be fine!



Andy Bowen said...

Hi, James. There is a series available in Paraguay, but nowhere else as far as I can tell, called "Hablemos el Guaraní," by Diego Ortiz, et. al. It consists of four books. The organization leaves quite a bit to be desired, and the explanations are sketchy. But it's the best thing I've found.

There are a couple of good dictionaries available, but the one I like the most for beginners is by Natalia Krivoshein de Canese. Though it is smaller than the very thorough volume by Antonio Guasch, it contains a higher percentage of vocabulary that is in current popular usage. This frees you from the blank looks resulting from choosing an obscure, obsolete, or invented word, of which there are many in Guasch.

All the best!

Kenny Trent said...

I really enjoyed this post. I lived in Paraguay for two years and I know exactly what you mean. I was fortunate enough to learn Guarani while there and it was absolutely amazing to see the change in countenance among people when they realize you speak Guarani - the language of their heart.

This is random, but my favorite joke there was to ask the people "?En Guarani, como se dice yo voy y caigo?" ("In Guarani, how do you say I go and I fall?"). They would then translate it as "Aha ha ha'a," to which I would respond, "Por que te ries?" ("Why are you laughing?"). They always seemed to enjoy that. =)

Ahaihueteri la Guarani ne'e. Iporaiterei. Hetama la none'eveiri, ha nochembovy'ai. Heta la Guarani okanyva chehegui.

Kudos for keeping up a Guarani blog!

Andy Bowen said...

Thanks for your comment, Kenny! Making people laugh (intentionally) in a language that's not your own is a pretty advanced level of language use!