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Far From Mexico, Students Try Saving Aztec Language


And finally this hour, a portrait of Mexican-Americans in New York connecting with their Aztec heritage. NPR's Margot Adler has this story about their efforts to learn an endangered language.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Listen to this phrase.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language) speech with flowers.

ADLER: Speech with flowers. That's the word for poetry in Nahuatl and it's very hard for non-native speakers to pronounce these words correctly. Nahuatl descends from ancient Aztec.

DANIEL KAUFMAN: Of course, it's not identical to the language that was spoken by the Aztecs, just like our English is not Shakespearian English. But it's the direct descendent of that language.

ADLER: That's Daniel Kaufman, a linguist and the founder of the Endangered Language Alliance. There are many Nahuatl words, he says, that we might find familiar.

KAUFMAN: Chocolate, tomato, coyote, all those words are Nahuatl words.

ADLER: Kaufman says there are many indigenous languages spoken in New York City, but the speakers are often invisible minorities within minorities. The Alliance deals with more than 20 languages and a number are indigenous to Mexico. About a million people speak Nahuatl. It's the indigenous language in the Americas with the second largest number of native speakers.

KAUFMAN: So you would think that a language that large, how could it be endangered? But in fact, the number of speakers is much less important than how the language is being transmitted and so you can have languages even with a million speakers, but if the children aren't learning it, it could be gone in two, three generations.

ADLER: So when Irwin Sanchez contacted the Endangered Language Alliance and said he wanted to teach his language, Kaufman was interested. He went to Mano A Mano, an organization founded to celebrate Mexican culture, and it offered classroom space. Executive director Juan Carlos Aguirre said it was simple.

JUAN CARLOS AGUIRRE: A world with one language, two languages, is a very boring world.

ADLER: When I arrived at class, there are about seven students, including Samantha McLane and Victor Pajarito.

SAMANTHA MCLANE: I am from Mexico, so I suddenly felt that it was kind of ironic that I didn't know anything about our own ethnic languages. I'm very curious. This is my first class. I really want to like it.

VICTOR PAJARITO: My great grandparents, they spoke it, but then after a while, they just stopped speaking it because there was no one else to speak to.

ADLER: Nahuatl is a very metaphorical, poetic language and most speakers only know it as an oral language. Irwin Sanchez often teaches by reading poetry and having students read it back.

IRWIN SANCHEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

ADLER: Teaching is not Irwin Sanchez's livelihood. He works in a Mexican restaurant in Queens. He says he is the last person in his family who speaks Nahautl.

SANCHEZ: Everybody speak when I was five years old. All my parents, you know, uncles, everybody speak in the house.

ADLER: But now, no one.

SANCHEZ: My brothers, they don't speak a lot. And my sister, she has five kids, so (Laughing) she's busy.

ADLER: He also tried to find people in the community, but it wasn't easy. Daniel Kaufman says that's not surprising.

KAUFMAN: People are shy to speak it in public. Many people report that, you know, even their fellow Mexicans will laugh at them if they hear them speak it on the street. And so there's a lot of stigma, old stigma that goes back to Spanish colonialism and just, you know, modern rural versus urban stigma.

SANCHEZ: A lot of discrimination in Mexico if you speak your own language. If you go to the cities, you know, they don't pay attention to you 'cause the way you speak.

ADLER: There was once an Aztec literature, but it was decimated by the Spanish, says Kaufman.

KAUFMAN: They burned everything they could get their hands on. There are a few codices that were left over, of course, but modern speakers have no idea how to read those glyphs.

ADLER: In fact, few people know how to write the language in the Latin alphabet. Teaching a modern alphabet is beginning to happen in some schools in Mexico, but the attempt to revive Nahuatl remains an uphill battle. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.