People often categorize activities. They’ll decide something is work, recreation, rest, education or any number of other things. But sometimes what seems like one category actually fits multiple categories. One day when I was around twelve played a video game (something most people would not consider educational) where the object is to build a civilization. I was playing as India trying to find a new route to Spain because my ally Austria blocked my other route. I sent my conquistadors through a peninsula to Spain. On my way I found and invaded the Aztec empire. I asked one of the staff how to pronounce the name Tenochtitlan. He had studied Spanish in Mexico and know some about the Aztec language Nahuatl. I had never heard of Nahuatl. I had studied some Latin, but besides that I was not very interested in language. At the time I enjoyed the sound of the language, especially the ATL sound common at the end of Nahuatl words.
I later grew more interested in language. I had studied Latin before I had studied any other language or aspect of language, Including English grammar. I learned about tenses, conjugation, declension (changing the end of a noun to affect its meaning) and syntax. Then I learned about the history of the English language and I became interested in the grammatical features of different languages. I became more interested in Nahuatl for more substantial reasons than the fact that I liked saying the word ‘atlatl’. Nahuatl is an agglutinative language which means that you build words as complex and meaningful as English sentences with morphemes, the smallest measurement of linguistic meaning.
At the age of fourteen, I decided wanted to learn Nahuatl. I did a Google search and found a Yale summer Nahuatl course. When I talked to my parents about it, they agreed to pay tuition and drive me if I could get accepted. I emailed the program administrator, Jean Silk. I was told that they were not sure if a high school student could attend the course and that I should contact them again in January. January came and I contacted them again. They said that I should contact them again in a month or so. When I did they said that I could attend the program, but not through Yale. I wouldn’t be given the three Yale credits that my classmates would, but I would receive a certificate of completion.
The administrator also wanted me to meet with her. She told me about the course logistics. Every day, five days a week for six weeks, I would spend two hours studying Modern Nahuatl, taught by native speakers of modern Huastecan Nahuatl. I would spend an hour studying my cultural activity which was dance. Then I would spend two hours studying Classical Nahuatl, the dialect that the Aztecs spoke. In addition there were four days a week one hour one on one tutoring sessions.
Jean wanted to know if I had any questions. I only had one which was, 'Do I have to know Spanish to take the class?' To my relief Spanish was not necessary to participate in the class, although Jean said it would be very helpful. Jean asked me a few questions. How did I hear about Nahuatl, Why did I want to learn Nahuatl, Had I studied any other language before etc. At the end she said she would email me a modified application form. She also told me that there was a Nahuatl conference in a few weeks that I could go to. I said I would go. There were probably twenty other people at the conference. On the first day, for about an hour at a time someone would get do a presentation on Nahuatl or Nahua culture. I learned that some of the few million native speakers continued the pre-Colombian realign. I saw slides of people offering cigarettes and coke to spirits (god or deity isn’t quite the right word). I learned words like pantheistic. And saw that this was a modern religion. It was one of the most educational experiences of my life.
I remember walking in the first day completely terrified. There was food, water and a room full of people. I looked over and saw the professor who was going to teach the class, the five native Nahuatl speakers who were who were TAs for the class, and eighteen other students. As I met them, the first question most of them asked me was what institution was I from. They all seemed shocked when I told them I was a high school student. I would later learn that the other students in the class were: four undergrads, a professor from Fordham and thirteen grad-students including doctoral candidates and post-doctoral students. I began to learn the basics of Nahuatl grammar. In Nahuatl every noun has a person. In other words there is no word for man. I can say: I am a man, he is a man, you are a man, we are men, you guys are men, they are man, but not man. I learned that you can’t have a vowel next a vowel or a consonant next to a consonant in the same syllable (tl and ts are considered complex consonants.). I also learned about the many prefixes and suffixes you put onto a verb or noun: verbers, nouners, possessive prefixes, abstractors, positional prefixes, etc. (Note that many of those are the informal names we gave them, so that their meanings would be more intuitive) Not to mention the fact that you can make infinitely long compound words.
The first Modern Nahuatl lesson was one of the hardest things I have done. It was in a strange mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl. I could understand most things by context alone. When instructors spoke predominately in Spanish, I often asked my classmates for clarification. Then first thing we learned was pronunciation. We then learned greetings and then basic conjugation and commands. With a vocabulary of maybe fifteen words we played a strange version of Nahuatl Simon-says. We broke up into groups of three people. One person would command a second one to do something and then ask third person what the second person was doing. In future lessons we would learn how to ask complicated questions, how to count and do basic math in Nahuatl (although counting itself feels like math in Nahuatl as they use a base twenty system), how to read and write, the names of animals, how to give directions and many other things of such a nature. One day about two or three weeks into the course when we were learning a song about an elephant which in tone and rhythm reminded me of ring around the rosy I released that the Modern Nahuatl class form me was something like going through the first grade in two languages neither of which I understood very well.
After Modern Nahuatl we had cultural activities. For an hour every day learned how to dance. Which dispute being something I have no natural talent for, was interesting and enjoyable. In between Dance and Classical Nahuatl there was a lunch break. I spent most of the lunch break either pacing or sitting outside eating and talking to my classmates. Classical Nahuatl for the first few weeks was mostly about breaking words down and learning grammar. Early on in the class the professor said that he wanted to meet us all. I decided to meet with him at a coffee shop. He wanted to talk about why I was interested in Nahuatl, my school and my other interests. When I told him that I like Science Fiction he told me that when he was a kid he met Ray Bradbury. He also told me how he got interested in Nahuatl. That he believed that every culture has its own world view, only accessible through its language and that he wants to make Nahuatl a household word.
As the course went on the activities in Modern Nahuatl class became more complex. We started to receive homework which included videos to watch, writing a paragraph about anything in Nahuatl, writing directions to your house in Nahuatl, etc. Onetime we had to create a dialog involving corn. One of the doctoral students in my class came up with “painting corn with Bob Ross”. In Classical Nahuatl we started to translate texts for the most part wills and other legal documents. One day instead of our normal classes we cooked tamales and we learned about traditional Nahua cuisine, as compared to modern Mexican cuisine. Soon thereafter we planted corn, which is a religious activity for most traditional Nahua communities. The previous evening we had performed a ritual on the kernels. We blew onto our hands, as it is believed that by breathing on your hands you are breathing skill onto them. Not dissimilar to breathing onto dice before rolling them. We then picked the kernels that we thought were larger and healthier. We then placed them into a bucket of water. The following day we started a corn planting ceremony. We setup an altar on an open outdoor fire place. We began by sweeping the dirt off. We then placed a table cloth, candles and food on it. We blew on our hands and took the bucket of water with the seeds in it, pouring out the water and all of the seeds that floated. We took the seeds that sank and planted them in small holes that we dug with a seed drill. Once we had planted all of the seeds we went back to the altar. The altar had a goblet with burning herbs beside and a picture that looked like the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ depending on how you looked at the top of it. One by one we smudged the altar with the goblet. Once everyone had smudged it we took the food and offered it to the people besides us. We finished by eating burritos. It was an interesting experience.
At the end of the class I took a test for the first time. It was an oral exam. I had to talk to one of the TAs for about ten minutes only in Nahuatl. There was some food. We all sang the elephant song one last time. Group by group we performed our cultural activities. We played a few games in Nahuatl (It really was like the first grade). We all ate lunch and said our last goodbyes.
I now realize that to pursue my interests in the Nahuatl language and Nahua culture I must learn Spanish. To learn Spanish I spent about a week going over the conjugations with a staff member at MLSS who is a former high-school Spanish teacher. I then played through a video game in Spanish asking him the meanings of the words that I came across and the occasional grammatical question. I found it difficult to keep Spanish and French straight in my head. There was an easy solution to this problem though. I found a website from which you can learn French from Spanish. I works through translation so I can translate French to Spanish, allowing me to learn both at once. I can also translate long texts from French or Spanish to English. So I sit here, a fifteen year-old writing about how I learned things some people learn as a grad-student because I got bored translating Journey to the Center of the Earth from French to English, all because as an eleven or twelve year old I decided I that I wanted to play a video game. Who says that children do not learn of their own volition?
Liam Marshall Butler