When Literacy Saves Lives

As a specialized area of study, linguistics pretty much never makes global news. But there are times when events that take on global importance have a vital linguistic element to them. Such is the case with the recent tragic death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal when she was being held in U.S. custody at the border last month.

On a radio segment of FRESH AIR, hosted on NPR by Terry Gross, linguist Geoff Nunberg helped Gross to understand the communication breakdowns that sometimes happen at the border.

Few Americans are aware that millions of Central Americans speak languages other than Spanish, he said. And while some of the reporting on the language that Jakelin’s father speaks (Q’eqchi’) has referred to it in a way that implies that it and other such indigenous languages are just minor, peripheral languages, the truth is that they are part of a deeply-rooted family of languages spoken by 6 million people in Mexico and Central America.

As Nunberg said,

“Speakers of those languages have been migrating to the U.S. for many decades, the majority legally. They're fleeing poverty, repression, gangs and state-sponsored violence. The Northern Triangle, as it's called, of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is reckoned one of the deadliest regions of the world. Taken together, there are more speakers of Mayan languages living in the U.S. than of Navajo, which is the most widely spoken North American indigenous language. The recent influx of migrants from the region has created the need for more interpreters.

According to a 2017 Justice Department report, the Mayan languages Mam and K'iche' are among the languages most often heard in immigration cases, ahead of French, Bengali and Korean. Border agents are supposed to make use of interpreters when they have communication problems, often over the telephone.”

In an ideal world, a Q’eqchi’-speaking interpreter would have been assigned to Jakelin’s father. Although all border patrol agents are trained in Spanish, they may not recognize that many of the migrants they deal with may speak just enough Spanish to get by at the market. These people are not necessarily equipped to answer questions about their health and well-being—a topic for which they simply will not have the words.

SIL LEAD has run Bloom workshops for speakers of some of the Mayan languages (Mam and K’iche’) spoken in Jakelin’s home country of Guatemala. We believe that literacy in an indigenous language is valuable in its own right. It is also a perfect gateway to literacy in the official state language of Spanish.  

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This is one effort that can help with communication at the border. Perhaps more importantly, literacy helps to pull people out of poverty and lowers the desperation that sends many of them north to seek a better life for their families.

This work is vital, as is the need in the interim to develop glossaries of medical terms in the languages that border patrol agents may encounter.  

Since, “the Mayan languages Mam and K'iche' are among the languages most often heard in immigration cases,” it would make sense for border patrol personnel to be given the tools and instruction they need to assist the people in their care who speak indigenous languages. For example the ability to identify what language a person is speaking or how well they speak the language of available interpreters, and at the very least to have a glossary of medical terminology available to ensure that anyone in custody is properly cared for.

Immigration is a complex and challenging issue that is not new or unique to the United States. While it can be tempting to spend our time shouting and pointing fingers, the ability to communicate effectively is one area where there is a clear need that can be met.

Language is a primary lens through which all people view the world. So if our goal is to treat everyone with respect and care as we seek to solve the very real problems that are facing us on our southern border, it stands to reason that linguistics should be given a larger role.