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Non-Spanish Speakers At The Border: What To Know About Meso-American Languages

Thursday, 04 April, 2019

"Recent deaths of Guatemalan child migrants while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol have provoked a renewed focus on linguistic barriers to effective healthcare communication. In two notable cases, those of Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, the primary languages spoken were of the Mayan family, specifically Q'eqchi' and Chuj (""Opinion: Migrant Girl's Death Reveals A Need For More Interpreters Along The Border"", by Dr. Geoff Nunberg for NPR's Fresh Air, Jan. 3, 2019; ""Official: Guatemalan boy who died in U.S. custody tested positive for influenza B, final cause of death remains under investigation"", by Maria Sachetti, Dec. 28, 2018). Mayan languages are one of six major classes of Meso-American languages, a set of indigenous languages spoken by pre-Columbian cultures that continue to reside throughout Central America. Other language families within the Meso-American set include¬† Chibchan, Mixe‚Ä"Zoquen, Oto-Manguen, Totonacan, and Uto-Aztecan.

Although Spanish is routinely  spoken-- at least at a basic level of functional communication-- by representatives of the United States Border Patrol, Spanish may be of limited clinical utility in cases such as those of Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gomez Alonzo. And while language barriers may not have been the primary contributing risk factors to these tragic fatalities, nonetheless they do present significant risk factors that impede access to adequate healthcare for speakers of indigenous languages in the United States and throughout the world.

In honor of the ""International Year of Indigenous Languages"" and the memories of the Guatemalan migrant children whose untimely deaths caused intense consternation to be expressed in mainstream media, we shall present some fundamental facts about the history, classification and characteristics of the most widely spoken Meso-American languages at the border between Mexico and the United States. We shall also share resources that can be directly applied to cases such as Jakelin Caal's and Felipe Gomez Alonzo's, in order to enhance communication of critical healthcare information. Please join us for this lively and interactive lecture on the languages of Meso-America!" 

The event will be in McGannon Hall 260.