If a handful of students at UC Berkeley found themselves in north-central Ecuador tomorrow, they’d find their way around better than most foreigners, and that’s because they’ve been studying the local language, Imbabura Quichua, since late August 2009.

In the summer of 2009, UC Berkeley hosted the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institute and a final project for a seminar there put one Berkeley graduate student, Jessica Cleary-Kemp, in contact with several speakers of Imbabura Quichua living in the Mission District of San Francisco. When UC Berkeley linguistics professor Lev Michael heard about the project, he invited the speakers of Imbabura Quichua to work part-time as linguistic consultants for the linguistics department’s annual Field Methods class.

Imbabura Quichua is a member of the Quechua language family, which is a group of similar languages distributed throughout the Andes mountains of South America from Bolivia to Colombia. A member of the Quechua language family, Cuzco Quechua, was the official language of the vast Inca Empire. Today, descendants of the Inca and other native groups that were in contact with them still speak varieties of Quechua and live in the territory of the former Inca Empire.

Because Quechuan languages have been so influential in South America and because the opportunity to learn them in the US is so rare, professor Michael chose Imbabura Quichua for Field Methods.

The goal of the Field Methods class at UC Berkeley is to train students to discover the sounds and grammar of a language that has never been scientifically described before. While other scholars have studied and described Imbabura Quichua before, none of the twelve students enrolled in Field Methods had any knowledge of the language, and so they worked as if no one had ever described it before.

The first step was to discover what sounds Imbabura Quichua uses to build words. To do that, all the students made lists of words according to specific categories, like weather, body parts, food, farming, geography, and family relations. They then asked the linguistic consultants how to say each word in Imbabura Quichua and recorded and typed up the results. Finally, several of the graduate students analyzed the lists and determined which sounds seemed to contrast with each other, like the sounds ‘ee’ and ‘oo’ contrast in “heed” and “hood.”

Once the students had discovered the sounds that Imbabura Quichua uses, they developed a phonetic spelling system to write words down as they heard them from the consultants. That writing system opened the door to exploring the grammar of Imbabura Quichua, which is a set of principles that tells how words are built and how sentences are put together.

Professor Michael helped guide the students toward topics that would help them understand the language better. As a result, students discovered many principles of Imbabura Quichua grammar, such as which pronouns are used, what the word order in sentences is, how to form questions, how to give commands, how to form the past, present, and future tenses, and how to form sentences with relative pronouns like who, which, and that.

The students of Field Methods also recorded personal and traditional stories from the consultants as well as instructions about how to make traditional dishes and run a farm, among many other topics. Because so many of the world’s languages may have no speakers by the end of the 21st century, it is important for linguistics students to be trained in how to obtain and translate oral descriptions that consultants give about their culture. Those descriptions give linguists valuable information about the language, but perhaps more importantly, they give future generations a way to listen to their mother tongue, which might have no speakers left. Unfortunately, this has already happened to many Native American languages in the United States, and many Native Americans today have only handwritten records of their ancestors’ languages.

It wasn’t just professor Michael that taught the Field Methods class: the linguistic consultants taught students how to speak everyday Imbabura Quichua, like how to ask about how someone’s day has been, what they like to eat, whether they’d like to get together again later, and how to get places. This practical teaching helped the students in Field Methods connect with the Quichua community, and even speak Imbabura Quichua to each other sometimes.

The Inti Raymi festival coincides with the culmination of the Field Methods class. Several of the students from the class are volunteering at the event itself, and all of the students are helping to write the articles in this brochure and on the web (https://intiraymisf.wordpress.com/). While the Field Methods class may be officially over, the students of Field Methods have developed a connection to the Quechua speaking world, and several of the students plan to continue working with the linguistic consultants in the future and keep learning more about Imbabura Quichua.