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The Yucatec Maya Summer Institute offers beginning, intermediate and advanced level instruction of modern Yucatec Maya which is spoken in the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize.

This summer I spent 6 weeks participating in the beginner’s program alongside other undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate students. Due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the program was completely online through Zoom. We met 5 days a week for 6 weeks. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we met from 10am to 4pm and on Tuesdays and Thursdays we met from 10am to 5pm. During those hours we received a solid foundation in listening, reading, and writing skills in order to advance our fluency in the language. In addition to that, there was a lot of emphasis on learning not only about the language, but about the Maya culture.

The program’s instructors placed an emphasis on the speaking and listening components which made this course that much more intensive. There were a total of 6 instructors and 5 out of those were native speakers of Yucatec Maya. The first day of classes, they spoke English 10% of the time, Spanish 30% and Maya 60%. I remember my classmates and I were extremely overwhelmed by this, but in retrospect we learned more because of the focus on speaking and listening. It was by no means easy, but I think it is safe to say that it kept us engaged on Zoom for the majority of the day.

In more detail, a normal day would start with cultural classes led by our professor Fidencio Briceño Chel. This is where I learned about Mayan culture, specifically about their customs and beliefs. We learned about how much both Mayan culture and Mexican culture (and language) influence the Yucatec Maya language. Additionally, we learned a lot about their view of the world, their “cosmoperception.” This reminded me of why I love to learn languages and that is because you are introduced to a whole other world than the one you are used to.

After the cultural classes, we would have class with UNC professor David Mora Martín. Here we would focus on grammatical structure, elementary vocabulary, and the structuring of simple phrases. This is where I learned how to introduce myself and my family, talk about day to day matters, how to describe basic things such as animals, and finally, where I learned most of the vocabulary that was used during the sessions that followed.

Following the morning session, we had class with four of our instructors. We would be placed in breakout rooms where we would focus on a certain part of the worksheets we followed, or we would be working on a project with the help of our instructors. This way, there would be two to four students with one instructor which facilitated the communication aspect, especially since we were completely online.

This is what we did for 6 weeks this past summer. Important to note, this was what I did throughout the current global pandemic, and I can confidently say it was the best program to be a part of during these times. I was able to connect with students from all over the United States and professors from both Chapel Hill and México at the comfort of my home. While it lacked the “abroad” component of studying abroad, I am thankful this was able to happen at all this summer.

While I did not achieve fluency in the language, I gained cultural competency and a supportive network of brilliant instructors. This summer I was given the privilege to learn about an indigenous culture and now I am able to communicate with another community that was once foreign to me. My hope is that next summer I am able to participate in the intermediate level of this program in Mexico.