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For the Grins
Bolivians use these brightly colored cloths, called 'llijllas' in Quechua and 'aguayos' in Spanish, for just about everything. (All photos by Karl Swinehart)

For the Grins

The question of why to study the Quechua language has any number of easy answers.

By Karl Swinehart


Spoken widely in rural areas, Aymara and Quechua can be also be heard in the streets and markets of cities such as La Paz.

Why Quechua? In a year of studying the language on a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship (FLAS), I've had this question posed to me often and in different ways. One answer is that early-morning greetings of sumaj p'unchay, in place of buenos días, win big smiles from Andean villagers.

There are others. During his campaign Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales Ayma, studied Quechua to emphasize his alignment with rural voters. Although Morales is ethnically Aymara, one of the two major ethnicities in Bolivia, his Movement Toward Socialism–Political Instrument for Peoples' Sovereignty (MAS-IPSP) party is strongest in the Quechua-dominant Cochabamba region of Bolivia. Roughly half the 800,000 people living in or near the city of Cochabamba speak Quechua, and many rural Bolivians express themselves more easily in Quechua or Aymara than in Spanish.

My own desire to learn Quechua and, more recently, Aymara grew from motives unlike Morales's—namely, my interests in Latin America, sociolinguistics, and public education policy. The former lingua franca of the Inca Empire, Quechua is the largest surviving Native American language, with some 10 million speakers throughout the Andes, from Colombia in the north to Argentina in the south. The Aymara language persists with two million speakers in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, having survived both Inca and Spanish colonial domination. Students of Latin American politics, agronomy, and women's studies—even art historians interested in Andean textiles—profit from study of these large and thriving Native American languages.


The orange 'papalisa' is one of the many varieties of tubor native to Bolivia.

For me, a student of educational linguistics, a bigger question than "why" was "how" to learn these languages. Thanks to the UCLA Latin American Center and the FLAS fellowship, I began Quechua at UCLA with Jaime Daza, who used materials developed by UCLA Applied Linguistics Professor Roger Andersen, and then spent the summer of 2006 studying at a language school in Cochabamba called Runa Wasi. In one-on-one classes, I worked on advanced Quechua with Hilda Alcocer, a seasoned educator, and on Aymara with Roman Crespo Titirico, who is developing community-based Aymara language libraries through UNESCO. Alcocer and I spent class sessions reading and discussing Quechua-language publications of the peasant unions in the region, such as Ñawpaqman Conosur. Commanding the native language of many indigenous Bolivians puts me in a better position to carry out Fulbright-supported research during this academic year with Bolivian bilingual educators.

For travelers, sumaj p'unchay is pronounced with a little glottal pause after the "p," like the middle of "uh-oh."

Swinehart earned his MA in Applied Linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language at UCLA in 2006. He is now a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.