“Hola casero,” Vicky cries out to one of her customers walking past the outside entrance of her food stand. The pedestrian ignores her.
She expresses a dramatic look of shock. “Oops, I don’t think I know him,” she laughs. She never misses an opportunity to greet, occasionally accidentally calling after complete strangers.
Even if she doesn’t know him, her affectionate use of the word casero may entice him to try one of her tacos or hamburgers another day. In Bolivia, casero or casera can be used to address both the client and the shopkeeper. It’s an endearing term that ensures the shopkeeper that “you know I wouldn’t buy from anyone else” and reminds the client that “I’m giving you much better prices than the other shops.” Vicky uses it to make everyone feel welcome at her fast food stand.
Vicky’s openness is what I need to practice my language skills. It’s not Spanish I’m trying to improve, but an indigenous language: Aymara. The Bolivian constitution recognizes 36 indigenous languages. Sadly, several of these languages are long extinct and many others are on the brink of extinction. Aymara, however, remains strong with some 1.7 million speakers in Bolivia (1). Still, Spanish has pushed it’s way into even the most isolated Aymara speaking villages, making me wonder if there is any incentive left to teach or learn it.
“What do you want Mateo?” Vicky turns away from the activity on the street and flashes me a gold toothed smile. We’ve recently stopped referring to each other as casero and casera and moved on to a first name basis. I never call any of the other shop keepers by their first name, but with Vicky it feels natural. She’s younger and more open than anyone else I buy from.
“Hamburgesa aljita,” I remind her that I want practice speaking Aymara. While Spanish dominates communication in La Paz, Aymara is not uncommon. Its raspy guttural sounds surface at the local markets or at less formal bus stations. I find it difficult however, to open a conversation in Aymara. It takes Aymara speakers several seconds to register that a gringo is trying to speak Aymara. If I receive a response in Aymara, it is unlikely that I will be able to understand it. My biggest fear is that I will offend someone, as it is difficult to separate Bolivian languages from their racial implications.
Vicky doesn’t get offended. “Poqata muntati?” She knows that I want my burger with everything on it, but she repeats the question every time I see her anyway. It creates a fun illusion that I can carry a conversation in Aymara. Anyone listening in may believe that I can speak it. Unless you know or study a foreign language yourself, it’s hard to decipher whether someone only knows a couple basic questions or is able to actually speak that language.
“Do you speak Aymara?” A women looks up from her salchipapas. This question leads to many more as I clarify which languages I can or can’t speak and why exactly I live in Bolivia. “My grandmother used to speak to me in Aymara,” she says, “I can still understand it, but I can’t really speak it.” I’ve heard this statement more than a couple times.
“Do you speak Aymara with your daughters?” I include Vicky. She’s a proud 24 year-old mother.
“Judith understands Aymara, and we speak it with her.” Vicky makes it sound like they are keeping the language alive in her family, but I have my doubts.
Judith often hangs out in the restaurant tracing the letters of the alphabet in her pre-school notebook. I have never heard her say a word in Aymara. Her mother will say some things to her in Aymara, but she shows no reaction and I don’t know if she understands. Vicky admits that even her own Aymara is not fluent. It may be people’s first language in the nearby countryside, but families often shift to Spanish when they move to the city.
I once tried to chat in Aymara with a bus driver I often hire to take me to the mountains. He had no idea I had been studying Aymara and I thought he would be thrilled to hear me ask some basic questions. Instead, he got tongue tied and responded in Spanish, “I grew up speaking Aymara in a village next to Illimani. So did my wife. Now we live in El Alto and speak Spanish with each other. My children only speak Spanish. I haven’t spoken Aymara in years.”
Vicky finishes serving two trankapechos. “Be careful with these,” Vicky grips her neck and pretends to choke. “Yaaaah,” she let’s the ladies know she’s just joking. They banter back and forth with Vicky. Then, they ask her about her daughters and compare pre-schools. Even after Vicky hands them their food to go they continue to chat. Finally they leave, exchanging warm good-byes with Vicky.
Vicky sits down next to me for a quick break. “Ikiña munta,” she tells me. She looks tired. I don’t think she has a lot of free time between taking Judith to school, shopping for her food stand and serving dinner. Sometimes she goes home to El Alto to sleep, but tonight I can tell that she will sleep in the loft nailed up above her restaurant.
“Do you want to learn some English?” I suggest.
“I need to learn English. You have to teach me. I only remember how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Sometimes tourists come here and they can’t speak Spanish.”
I decide she should learn how to express which dishes she has and which ones she doesn’t have even though it’s unlikely she will use it. She tries to pronounce the sentence I’ve written in my notebook and we bust out laughing. It’s not just speaking with customers that motivates Vicky, it’s learning for the sake of learning that makes her excited. It’s fun. Soon, we’re comparing English with Aymara and fascinated by the strange noises that can represent so much.
As much as we want to learn languages for their practicality, the experience can be so much more. Languages provide glimpse into the soul of humanity. They are the rawest form of human expression, each one carrying its own perspective and unique flavor. Globalization is consolidating communication into the world’s mainstream languages. An unfortunate side-effect is the dramatic loss of linguistic diversity across the globe. Once every two weeks a language dies. Once every two weeks we lose a glimpse of what we are.(2)