One of three Western Carolina University faculty members named recipients of prestigious Fulbright Scholar awards earlier this year was scheduled to travel to the Mexican state of Chiapas in mid-August to engage in teaching and research that is aimed at helping speakers of the indigenous language Tsotsil Maya learn English and, in turn, teach English to others in that linguistic group.
Paul Worley, WCU associate professor of English and director of the university’s graduate programs in English, was notified last February that he would be receiving the award. He will be collaborating on his Fulbright-sponsored project with students and faculty colleagues at the Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas, a university located in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, through next May.
Worley first visited Mexico as an undergraduate research assistant in 1995, and about a decade later he joined his wife and current WCU English Department faculty member Melissa Birkhofer in spending two summers studying Maya language and culture in the Mexican state of Yucatan through a program offered by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Worley said his interest in indigenous languages and cultures blossomed as the couple lived in the household of Mariano Bonilla Caamal, a storyteller whose indigenous language is Yucatec Maya.
“One of the things Mariano did was use Maya stories to teach the Yucatec Maya language, and I was incredibly interested in that,” Worley said. “Through that interpersonal relationship with Mariano and his family, I really became engaged with contemporary Maya literature and Maya literary movements in Mexico and Guatemala, and began branching out from there to make friends throughout the Americas – indigenous people and non-indigenous people – who are working in those areas.”
Academic research involving indigenous languages needs to be based on “having conversations with speakers of those languages” – not conversations about speakers of those languages, Worley said. “My friend Mariano once told me I could publish a book in English about my research and it would be wonderful, but it wouldn’t do anything for the indigenous people,” he said.
Worley, who earned his doctorate in comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes it is essential for academic research to be grounded on a foundation of personal relationships such as the one he maintains with Caamal. They are currently collaborating on an oral history project titled “Tsikbal ich Maya (Speaking Maya).”
Worley said he expects the pedagogical tools produced through his teaching and research in Chiapas will have an impact by making it easier for speakers of Tsotsil Maya to learn English and then teach English to others who have Tsotsil Maya as their primary language. English language instructional materials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border often are based on the learner having Spanish as a first language and don’t meet the needs of other linguistic groups, he said.
With English being the dominant language of global commerce, indigenous people of Mexico want to learn the language because it can affect their livelihoods, Worley said. “For the women who sell textiles in Chiapas, it affects their ability to make a sale. Knowing English can have a profound impact on a person’s ability to make a living,” he said.
Worley said he hopes his teaching and research in Mexico also has an impact in Western North Carolina, which is home to speakers of more than 10 Mexican indigenous languages, with Tsotsil Maya being among them.
“Folks who are speakers of these indigenous languages and living in the U.S. can run into lots of problems such as in the legal, health or law enforcement context,” he said. “They might come into an office with a fairly simple problem, but because they are provided with a Spanish language interpreter, they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do.”
Each linguistic group in Mexico and WNC has its own set of needs, and Worley said he hopes the materials developed for speakers of Tsotsil Maya will lead to more instructional tools to help other indigenous groups learn English. “When I return, I hope we can begin to cultivate meaningful relationships between WCU and these groups to enrich both those communities and the university,” he said.
WCU’s other two recipients of Fulbright Scholar awards – Mimi Fenton, professor of English, and Turner Goins, the university’s Ambassador Jeanette Hyde Distinguished Professor of Gerontological Social Work – will be leaving on their scholarly trips early in 2018. Fenton’s teaching and research is taking her to Budapest, Hungary, from January through June, while Goins will be traveling to New Zealand to work on a research project from February through November.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange initiative sponsored by the U.S. government and is administered through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in which Fenton, Goins and Worley are participating sends approximately 800 American scholars and professionals to about 130 countries annually to lecture or conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields.