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ND offers courses in Quechua

Joe Trombello | Monday, August 29, 2005

Junior Kevin Blinn received some strange reactions from friends and family last spring when they learned of his decision to take Notre Dame’s first-ever beginning Quechua course.

“My dad right off the bat was like, ‘You are taking what and why?'” Blinn said. “Hardly anyone has heard of Quechua. [My friends] didn’t even know it was a language.”

In fact, not only is Quechua a language, it is one of Latin America’s most important indigenous languages, according to Ted Beatty, an associate professor of history and fellow of the Kellogg Institute.

“There are millions who speak Quechua as a primary language,” he said. “We see [the indigenous perspective] as critical to the study of Latin America.”

Quechua is most prominent in Peru, and was also the language of the Incans before Spanish conquerors destroyed the once-powerful civilization in the 16th century. Notre Dame is currently one of only 14 universities that offer the language.

Notre Dame faculty stressed the importance of offering courses in an indigenous language rather than simply teaching courses in more dominant languages like Spanish or French.

“The assumption is if you are to study Latin America, you need to know Spanish,” Beatty said. “That will get you a certain distance … but there are limitations. For South America … Quechua is the most important and the most widespread [indigenous language].”

Ted Cachey, chair of the department of romance languages and literatures, said the Quechua courses complement the department’s mission to help students realize “the importance of knowing languages and knowing the world through languages.”

He also believes that the courses, taught in alternating years by two women from Cuzco, Peru – the ancient capital of the Incan empire – will improve the diversity of academic experiences students can be exposed to.

“We are excited about having the opportunity to offer Quechua. It also corresponds to a goal that we have of enhancing diversity of the college and the University … indigenous languages represent a source of diversity to us,” he said. “[Also] there is a benefit to the student to have teachers from all parts of the world.”

Cachey said his department is trying to promote the courses through posters displayed in O’Shaughnessy Hall. While some undergraduates did take Quechua in the spring, the only two students currently enrolled are first-year Ph.D. candidates in the new doctoral program in Latin American History, which is being offered by the history department.

“We invite the undergraduate students to seriously consider [Quechua courses],” he said.

Both the Quechua courses in particular and the new historical doctoral program in general were due to the influence of Sabine MacCormack, an endowed professor with joint appointments in the history and classics departments. She said exposing students to an indigenous language will afford them a more realistic understanding of the culture and history of Latin America.

“We view Latin America as being populated by people who speak Spanish or Portuguese,” MacCormack said. “In fact … practically all Latin American countries have a significant population that speaks an indigenous language. Our students [taking Quechua will] have access to how these countries really are.”

MacCormack has conducted much of her academic work in Peru. Her connections with the Andean College in Cuzco – as well as her previous teaching at the University of Michigan, which offers Quechua – enabled MacCormack to start the language courses at Notre Dame. Inez Callalli will be teaching Quechua this academic year and currently lives with MacCormack. The previous teacher, Gina Maldonado, is residing in her native Cuzco and will return next school year.

The language is currently being offered at the beginning and the intermediate levels, while next term will allow students to also take the course at the advanced level. MacCormack said the course is conducted primarily in Quechua, although Spanish is also used.

“My hopes are that the Quechua program will really thrive and become a regular part of the curriculum,” she said. “Once we have a fully formed advanced class, people could be reading colonial texts which give access in historical terms to an understanding of the complexity and many-faced cultural diversity of Latin American countries.”

MacCormack said the language courses connect with a number of programs, like the new doctoral program in Latin American languages and literatures being offered by the department of romance languages and literatures and the Kellogg Institute’s emphasis on the relationship between the democratic process and Latin America.

In addition, a new study abroad program will be offered for the first time this summer in Cuzco. MacCormack says a knowledge of Quechua could be beneficial to students who would be encountering indigenous people in their day-to-day lives. Also, given student emphasis on community service, she believes students could volunteer either at archeological digs or through teaching English and computer courses to indigenous people who have been displaced from the countryside.

“From the point of view of the student, practicing Quechua can be very illuminating in other ways,” she said. “It is helpful for us who come from a rich country to see what it [poverty] is really like – that although poor, these people live useful and worthwhile lives.”

MacCormack also said that being exposed to an indigenous perspective can help college students realize the complexity of a concept like identity.

“In Latin America, identities are constructed in many different ways from those that we take for granted,” she said. “A program that helps draw attention to the polyphony of voices will help Notre Dame students locate themselves in the current and in the future.”