Approximately one million people located throughout the Andean Mountains of Ecuador, Columbia and Peru speak different dialects of Quichua, which is a 2,000-year-old language.
“Learning about the culture and lives of its speakers has been very exciting, humbling and thought-provoking,” Nuckolls said. “At first I was baffled by their culture. Then I was intrigued. Now I admire them a lot.”
The language and culture are continually evolving, with the traditional Spanish language and customs creeping in more and more. Still, Nuckolls is optimistic. She referenced the concept of ecological boredom, which is the idea that modernization is inhibiting the ability of people to live their lives with autonomy and creativity. Nuckolls believes the Quichua people don’t have that problem.
For the BYU students, being in Ecuador and with the Quichua people is a highly-impactful experience. The students live at a field school, in a beautiful setting, with all the necessities they need — beds, sheets, bathrooms and three meals a day. Quichua people live and work at the school, providing constant interactions in the language.
Other Quichua speakers are bussed in from a nearby town. The field school also hosts other PhD scholars from Europe and the US who are studying in the area, giving the students and extra opportunity to learn of the people, culture and language from them.
One of the most fascinating experiences this past summer, was the discovery of how Quichua people speak about color. Instead of having unique, stand-alone words for each color, the Quichua people mostly describe color by speaking of a specific item that has that color in it. For example, when describing something that’s blue, they would describe it as the color of a toucan’s head feather. They would not use a stand-alone equivalent word for the color blue. This had never occurred to Nuckolls, who had always wondered why Quichua has so few color terms, and why the ones they do have are mostly borrowed from Spanish.
“To me this experience reveals the importance for Quichua people of carefully observing what they perceive around them,” Nuckolls said. “This in turn, helps nurture the special intelligence they have about nature and how it works.”
One evening, a student asked two of the Quichua speakers to diagram some of their farming practices in fields which they call chagras. Quichua is not a written language. With the women not knowing how to read or write, they instead used small rocks on a large sheet of white paper and placed them exactly where they would plant different items.
On this study abroad, even the smallest details of Quichua life and language were explored.
The Equador study abroad was an experience the students will never forget, and for Nuckolls, it’s an experience she wants all of her students to be able to have. There’s something special about being able to immerse yourself in a field of study, a language and a people.
“It’s a lot different from learning in a classroom,” said Emily Peterson, one of the linguistics students who were on the trip, “because sometimes in a normal classroom you feel disconnected from the material. But here, when you get to see the lives that the people live who speak the language that you’re studying, you get to look through a different lens and experience their culture in a more authentic way.”