This school year, MSU is offering an introductory course in Kichwa, an Indigenous language spoken by Quechua people primarily in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.
Teaching the class is Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant Micaela Jerez, a Kichwa Salasaca woman from Ecuador. Jerez previously worked alongside the Ecuadorian Sumak Kawsay Yachay, or SKY, Foundation teaching English to local children and university students.
Jerez said teaching Kichwa in the U.S. provides her with a valuable opportunity to share her language and culture with people who otherwise might not be exposed to it.
"Nobody knew about Salasaca (people) here," Jerez said. "Now, some people know that we exist, that we are an Indigenous community that has its own language, customs, traditions, parties and all of those things."
Spoken by an estimated eight million people worldwide, Quechua, the language family that contains Kichwa, has been declared by UNESCO as potentially vulnerable on account of its dwindling number of speakers across parts of Ecuador.
Jerez said that in Ecuador, interest in Kichwa has declined as families have chosen to send their children to schools where they are instructed in Spanish rather than Kichwa.
"Even in my country, even in my town, nobody wants to learn Kichwa," Jerez said. "The majority of parents, for example, don’t like that their kids learn in Kichwa."
One of Jerez's students, lifelong education junior Julia Tehauno, said she was motivated to take the class because of the prospect of learning from a native speaker such as Jerez. She added that, although they’re not as popular as other languages taught at MSU, there is immense value in learning Indigenous languages.
"You might want to learn Spanish, Mandarin, and the other biggest languages, but (those classes) don’t talk about the cultural aspect as much," Tehauno said.
Similarly, Jerez said that through learning Kichwa, students can learn to communicate with and gain appreciation for a community far different than their own.
"If you want to go visit a (Native) community, you really want to learn not just as a tourist, but as a person who really wants to know the culture," Jerez said.
Tehauno, who is the secretary of Indigenous student group Timetzalimet, said learning culture alongside language has been a vital part of her experience learning Kichwa.
"You can't have the culture without the language," Tehauno said. "There are just things that are ingrained in the language that you're not going to be able to get through translation."