Why language matters

How a Seeder in Bolivia is speaking an Indigenous language to connect to her community

Bolivian hillside

Maria Martin leads me through the winding cobblestoned streets of Llallagua, Bolivia – a town with a palpable energy for such a small population. By noon, street vendors line every wall, selling bags of popcorn from their carts, hot apple-quinoa drinks and artisanal goods to extranjeros like me.

Maria is a foreigner too, but she’s been living and working in this community for over a year now with MCC’s Seed program. For her placement she provides support (like grant writing, document translation and helping measure program impact) with MCC’s local partner Programa de Desarollo Integral Interdisciplinario (PRODII; Integrated Interdisciplinary Development Program). PRODII’s work supports farmers in the North of Potosí in improving sustainable agriculture practices and adapting to the effects of climate change. Maria is from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and attends Mt. Clinton Mennonite Church.

A young woman sitting in the Bolivian hillside
Maria Martin is visiting Acasio, Bolivia, during her Seed term serving alongside MCC partner PRODII. 
MCC photo/Catalina Ospina

Walking around the community with Maria, it’s easy to tell she’s connected to the energy pulsing through the streets and wants to be part of it. Some of her friends, like Esther Ramos Cuevas, who we meet at her corner store, know that Maria is fascinated by language. As well as being fluent in Spanish, she’s dedicated time to learning Quechua, one of the Indigenous languages spoken in Bolivia. Her friends love giving her opportunities to practice, and will exclaim to others with pride, “Greet Maria in Quechua! She knows how to speak it!”

But sometimes Maria’s interest in Quechua comes as more of a surprise, like to a woman we pass selling crafts spread out on a brightly colored fabric. Maria greets her, “Casera, imaynalla kachkanki? (Hello, how are you?)” The woman’s eyes go wide with delight as she takes a second to respond, “Waliqlla kachkani, qamrí? (I’m fine, how are you?)”

“It’s fun to surprise people like that,” Maria laughs.

But fun aside, what Maria is dedicating time to in her Seed experience is significant. Her conversations in Quechua are a conscious choice rooted in a desire for deeper cultural connection.

Maria leads me back to her home, pours me a steaming mug of tea, and we sit down to talk more about language and why it matters.

MCC's Seed Program

Seed is a two-year program that brings together a cohort of young adults ages 20–30 from around the world to learn, serve and reflect.

What is Quechua and where does it come from?

Maria explains that Quechua is one of 36 Indigenous languages spoken in Bolivia and throughout the Andes region of South America. It was a language spoken by the Inca empire and where the Inca people moved, the language continued to spread. But in time, popularity in Spanish took over much of South America.

These days, knowing Quechua is a contentious topic depending on who you’re talking with. For some, passing down Quechua to their children represents a scary possibility they will be cut off from job opportunities in the city. Many families don’t want their kids to be limited by the languages they speak and encourage them to take office jobs in Spanish instead of continuing family agriculture and speaking in Quechua. There’s work being done to keep the language alive in schools and within government jobs, but it’s a language that decreases with each generation.

So, what does it mean for Maria, from the United States, to work alongside others in the community of Llallagua and speak Quechua?

Maria describes three basic layers of why learning languages matter for her in building deeper cross-cultural connections.

1. Language builds connection and shows value

While Maria could have gotten by chatting with vendors and friends in Spanish. To show an interest in Quechua is a symbol of wanting to go deeper. “It’s been a good way to connect with people, learning Spanish and Quechua,” she explains. “They’re both languages that have been devalued in some contexts, so the fact that I want to learn it, am excited about it and try to speak it has been meaningful for people. It’s a way to say, ‘I’m interested in you and your life.’”

A woman with her back turned to the camera is looking at a table of crafts and items for sale. Another woman sits on the steps behind the items.
Maria Martin speaks Quechua with a street vendor in Llallagua, Bolivia. She is learning Quechua, an Indigenous language spoken in the western region of the country.
MCC photo/Rachel Watson

Maria would say she’s an introverted person, so going out of her way to connect with her community sometimes takes extra effort. Learning Quechua is inherently personal, because unlike Spanish, resources and dictionaries aren’t always available. To learn a new word or phrase, Maria must stop and ask someone, "What does this word mean again? Can you repeat that?"

In addition to her work placement with an MCC partner in Llallagua, she sees getting to know the people in her community as an equally important part of her Seed experience. “The opportunity to learn Quechua was something that really drew me to the Bolivia Seed program,” she says.

2. Language grows cultural competency

It’s said that Quechua is a “sweet” language, and Maria explains that even the sounds of words have shaped her own perceptions of the people and culture of Llallagua.

In Quechua many of the words end in ‘y’s, which makes it sound softer and sweeter. For example, “my little child” is “wawitay” in Quechua. Hearing these sounds shapes her ideas of people from this part of the world. “The people I interact with are warm people. Not necessarily super outgoing and expressive but very warm and welcoming. I think that’s reflected in the language.”

This cultural knowledge in Bolivia only deepens as Maria learns more Quechua and interacts with others.

“I don’t think you can really understand a culture if you don’t understand its language,” she says. “And you can’t really speak a language if you don’t understand the culture. I think those two really go together.” Learning these nuances in language helps Maria to see people in a different light and to have a more complex understanding of the culture that surrounds her.

3. Language breaks down cross-cultural barriers

As the two-year Seed cycle in Bolivia wraps in January 2024, Maria will continue to use her skill set in language learning to break down barriers that exist within her home country of the United States.

While nationalism and fear of “the other” grows, she sees attempting a new language as an antidote to that. She says, “I think learning languages is a way to break down barriers not just because of the language but other barriers too. It helps us feel closer to each other, it reminds us that we’re just people.” Maria recalls a memory of walking down the street in Llallagua and watching a kid interact with a dog blocking her way, calling out to her mom “that little fart!”

“People are hilarious in any language; they make jokes and do funny things and are irritating. I think when you spend more time with people who are different than you, even if you can’t speak their language very well, you just feel less of those differences.”

Maria’s willingness to jump into the uncomfortable process of learning an Indigenous language and her intentionality in the Seed experience has led her to these daily conversations that show care for a community trying to hold onto a devalued language. Through this, she gets a rich window into another world and culture.

Rachel Watson was the communications and program support facilitator for MCC in Bolivia. 

Global Service Learning

Interested in an experience like Maria’s? MCC's Seed program is a two-year program that brings together young adults ages 20–30 from around the world to learn, serve and reflect.