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Spotlight: Oscar Rojas Villarroel

October 28, 2020

By Linguistics Summer School Bolivia

Oscar Rojas Villarroel at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Qewiña Pampa, a Quechua-speaking rural town located in Pocona-Carrasco, in the department of Cochabamba, Bolivia. I grew up speaking Quechua and I have also inherited the cultural and daily practices of my community. I only learned Spanish when I went to school, as Quechua was the language spoken at home. After finishing high school, I moved to the city of Cochabamba to study my BA in Applied Linguistics for Language Teaching at San Simon University.

How did you get involved with language documentation?

In 2016 I attended the courses organized by the Linguistics Summer School and I learned about this field in the class titled: “The structure of Chácobo” taught by Dr. Tallman. This class was very encouraging in the sense that outsider linguists can do great work documenting a language from zero. Then, early this year, a professor from my thesis committee, B.A. Rosario Zambrana, recommended me for an internship to document monolingual Quechua. This project was a pioneer project between the Linguistics Summer School Bolivia (LSSB) and the VLACH program at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria. The requirements of this internship included being a native speaker and willing to become a pioneer in language documentation and description. I though this experience was just fantastic for me. After I was interviewed for this internship, I was notified that I had been selected. This internship has two stages. The first stage was in Bolivia and involved the documentation of natural speech and daily practices with monolingual elders in my community. The second stage takes place at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria, where I am currently curating, editing, and transcribing the data I have collected in order to create a bundle of 10 video clips. I can’t wait to see the outcomes out of this internship. I love the work I do, and I believe I am on the right career track. It makes me feel very proud of my native language and the people in my community.

What linguistic work have you produced using the documentary data?

I have received some linguistic training from LSSB members and have been digging into the existing Quechua literature. I am very interested in descriptive linguistics, particularly studying morphology. I have used the documentary data to write a paper on the reciprocal suffix -na and its grammatical functions.

Could you tell us about your experiences with VLACH at the Austrian Academy of Sciences?

My experience with the VLACH program in Vienna has been very enriching in the sense that I learned many protocols for archiving and preserving data for future generations. I learned how to create and save metadata, as well as how to define a specific and popular phonetic alphabet. We need the scientific community to have access to and to understand monolingual Quechua, which has been under-studied. We also need to provide accessibly archived data for other speakers of Quechua. Beyond my work preparing the data for archiving, I had the opportunity to give an invited talk about my work as a documentary linguist, my linguistic analysis, and my community work and commitment. Monolingual systems in Bolivia are still not well understood. The Quechua language spoken in Bolivia is diverse and my work aims to contribute to that.

Oscar Rojas Villarroel at the National Library in Vienna, Austria

Apart from my internship here in Vienna, I have also explored the city a bit. Vienna is a big and diverse city. We see people from everywhere. I have encountered hearing so many languages from different countries while walking around. I also enjoy the old architecture of this city.

You have recently published a story book written in Quechua. What is the book about?

This book is titled “Iphu”, which would translate as ‘misty rain’ in English. It is a book of traditional adventure stories orally narrated in my community. It uses an appropriate orthography that is intelligible to community members. When I decided to write this book, my goal was to preserve the knowledge of the elderly people in Qewiña Pampa. Elders are prominent storytellers, and even today, they narrate stories for children at night before going to bed.

“Iphu” traditional story book written by Oscar Rojas Villarroel

What are your future plans related to community work and linguistic work?

I would like to continue studying monolingual Quechua as it is spoken in Quewiña Pampa and in other regions of Bolivia. As I mentioned earlier, my goals are to understand the grammar of those systems. I would like to see what we can learn from monolingual varieties, since almost all of the studies on Bolivian Quechua describe urban varieties or Quechua-Spanish bilingual systems. I believe that studying monolingual systems will greatly enhance our understanding of the diversity of Quechua varieties spoken in Bolivia. Similarly, I would like to keep working closely with my own community. I want to be more involved in revitalization projects representing monolingual varieties in different community and educational projects.

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