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.