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Credit: John Ortega

While most people know what Hebrew is, few would recognize Quechua. But just as many people — about six to eight million — speak each language.

Quechua is an indigenous language spoken in central Andean countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The Penn Language Center began offering elementary and intermediate Quechua classes two years ago, when several graduate students successfully petitioned to start a Quechua language program. Today, it is still the only indigenous American language offered at Penn.

“By putting Quechua on a university level, we recognize that Andean culture and people are not just myths, but have knowledge and value,” Quechua professor Americo Mendoza-Mori said.

Elementary Quechua students typically comprise undergraduates and graduate students who are of Hispanic heritage or have an academic interest in the language. This diverse group of students engages in conversations that could never occur in other language classes.

“A native Spanish speaker would ask a question in Spanish,” 2016 College graduate Abby Graham said. “Someone would then answer in English, and the professor would respond in Quechua. I love that kind of trilingual mix.”

Quechua differentiates itself from other languages in that words gain additional meaning through suffixes instead of through sentences.

“The words do get very long, which makes them tricky to speak sometimes but also an interesting challenge to overcome,” College and Wharton senior Gleeson Ryan said.

The Quechua classes not only teach students how to speak the language but also instill broader cultural understanding that transcends the language itself.

“There’s a responsibility that comes with learning Quechua, of understanding the importance of what the language means to different people,” Graham said. “And that’s something that all of us studying the language have internalized.”

Quechua students form a tight-knit community that immerses itself in Quechuan language and culture outside of the classroom.

“After class, a few of us sang the Barbie Girl song in Quechua, which was really funny so we decided to make a video and post it on Facebook,” College senior Juan Cabrera said.

This community extends beyond Penn’s campus, however. Last April, Penn’s Quechua program organized a “Thinking Andean Studies” colloquium that attracted people outside of Penn, all united in their passion for Andean culture.

“I met practitioners who teach the language...and activists in New York who run Quechua radio and TV programs,” said Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate Frances Kvietok, one of the graduate students who initially petitioned for a Quechua language program. “Even though the conference was based in an academic space, the audience and the participants went beyond that space.”

Despite the comments he receives from colleagues that Quechua is a dying language, Mendoza-Mori still sees its relevance.

“Climate change is now all over the news,” Mendoza-Mori said. “But we as a Western society have for a while failed to understand the Earth. At the same time, the indigenous people have always had a deep relationship with the Earth. We should recognize that that’s knowledge they knew.”

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