Kyle Coombs ‘14 (Scotia, N.Y.) didn’t just take part in the SIT Cochabamba (Bolivia) study abroad semester. He ended up analyzing linguistic data for an independent study project and turning it into a Quechua-Spanish-English trilingual children’s book.
That book will be published later this year by Kids’ Books Bolivia, a nonprofit that provides books to children in orphanages and low-income communities in Bolivia.
Coombs got interested in pursuing this project while taking a class in Bolivia that discussed how Spanish and Quechua influenced each other. He was especially intrigued to discover if people used Quechuan instead of Spanish when referring to places and objects that existed before Europeans arrived in South America, and wanted to observe this language phenomenon across ages, genders, socioeconomic classes, and education levels.
After some research, he discovered that there had been no significant research done on how Bolivian indigenous languages were influenced by Spanish imperialism. “Knowing this excited me more because I was there and I could do it,” says Coombs.
After studying Quechua for three months, and already fluent in Spanish, he recorded 15 speakers describe a picture of a farm drawn by a friend from his study abroad program. He asked the participants what they thought of lexical borrowing from Spanish and other languages.
“Most speakers explained that they preferred that children learn newly invented Quechua words whenever possible,” says Coombs. “This led me to compile a trilingual children’s book aimed at improving language learning across English, Spanish and Quechua.” What Coombs did was unique in that he first put together the book in Quechua and then worked backwards, translating it into Spanish and English. “People in my program told me they had never seen anyone do that before,” Coombs says.
Although an economics major, Coombs has always had a special interest in linguistics, which he is minoring in. Indeed, a previous class about indigenous languages inspired him to study in Bolivia, where more than 30 indigenous languages are spoken.
He still needs funding to publish his book. Once that funding is secured, about 600 copies of the book will be printed and sent to orphanages and other institutions.
As for his post-graduation plans, Coombs is unsure at this point but knows this much: “I’d love to do something like this again, working in developing nations with speakers of indigenous languages.”