Promoting Language Learning in Maya Youth: A Digital Variorum of the Popol Wuj in K'iche' and Yukatek

Databases/Information Systems; Anthropological Linguistics/Sociolinguistics; First/Second Language Acquisition; Latin American Languages and Societies; Latin American (History); Diversity

This project builds digital texts in endangered languages to promote language learning and cultural connection among Maya youth in Mexico, Guatemala, and the US.

Research Interests
  • indigenous studies
  • Indigenous Languages
  • Maya
  • Relational database
  1. AB
    Allison M Bigelow
    College of Arts and Sciences
  2. LS
    Lucie W Stylianopoulos
    University of Virginia Library
  3. RA

K’iche’ and Yukatek, also known as Qach’abal (“Our Language”) and Maaya t’aan (“Maya Speech”), are two of 32 endangered Mayan languages spoken in Central America and diasporic communities. Both require new materials to promote language acquisition, literacy skills, and cultural heritage – especially among children. This project works collaboratively across three countries and multiple languages, leveraging UVA's expertise in Digital Humanities, data science, and Indigenous Studies to develop a critical new resource for scholarly study and public good.

Our team will create an interactive digital variorum of the Maya K'iche' narrative Popol Wuj, what scholars call the “most widely-studied” and “most important” book by Maya authors, not about them (Henne 2020; Quiroa 2017, 2013, 2011; Abreu Gómez 2010; Christenson 2003). Although scenes from the Popol Wuj appear widely in Pre-Columbian art (Chinchilla 2017), only one edition of the work survived the Spanish conquest. Today, scholars are mining that edition, prepared by Dominican friar Francisco de Ximénez between 1701 and 1703, for evidence of linguistic structures, vocabulary, and cultural practices that can be reintroduced into community life as part of a robust program of language documentation, preservation, and revitalization. They are also creating new digital editions in Mayan languages to reach youth where they are: online.  This project contributes to that ongoing work with two new Mayan-language editions of the Popol Wuj, in K'iche' and Yukatek, new TEI editions of existing editions (Colop 1999, Briceño Chel 2012), and a text map that connects the new editions to our completed work (Ximénez 1701-1703).

Digital resources have three clear advantages for our project. First, because production costs for digital books are lower than those of printed works, we can train Maya collaborators on free, open source platforms like GitHub and Drupal to promote future Mayan-language publications by scholars from the community. Second, although Indigenous communities are generally underserved in telecommunications infrastructure (Duarte 2017), high cell phone and smartphone access allow us to deliver resources to students without waiting for broadband cable. There are 20.4 million cell phones in use among Guatemala’s 17.3 million citizens; 80% of citizens in Yucatán have cell phone access, most of which are smartphones (Gamarro 2019; Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía 2019). Third, interactive digital materials are better at conserving Indigenous oral traditions than static, printed works; a more dynamic understanding of oral tradition promotes the cultural pride necessary for long-term language preservation (Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla 2018).

Desired outcomes

Our digital variorum will include 6 texts. Four works (#1, 3, 4, and 6) will be supported by 3C funding. The remaining two are complete (#5) or in progress this year (#2). 

  1. A new, collaboratively-authored TEI edition in modern K'iche', produced by a team of 5 K'iche', Q'eqchi', and Tz'utujil scholars in Antigua, Guatemala (Universidad Rafael Landívar and Fundación Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín). With permission from the family of Sam Colop (1999), this edition updates the language, grammar, and orthography of Colop's work and converts the single-author volume into a work that resonates with speakers of K'iche' and related highland languages in multiple communities. This will be the base text for an audiovisual layer like what we have planned for the Yukatek edition, #3-4 below.
  2. A TEI edition of Colop (1999), showing readers how the new K'iche' edition (#1) overlaps and diverges. This portion is in progress at, thanks to support from the USOAR program. (See Student Engagement, below)
  3. A new series of video shorts recorded by a team of 3 Yukatek scholars in Valladolid, México (Universidad de Oriente), to be linked to #4 below.
  4. A TEI edition of Briceño Chel (2012), to be completed in the 2021-2022 academic year, following the model of #2 above.
  5. Our completed edition of Ximénez (1701-1703), available at, which links to a relational database of 880 Mesoamerican cultural topics ( 
  6. A text map that identifies the translational and interpretive relationships between items #1-5

The variorum will be built using UVA Create. The UVA Library’s Digital Stewardship Services will preserve the site once it is no longer in development. All content and dissemination decisions reside with K'iche' and Yukatek collaborators, in accordance with the principles of Indigenous data sovereignty (Montenegro 2019; Rainie et al. 2017; Kukutai and Taylor 2016).

In addition to developing new materials for immediate use, our team will create opportunities for future research. It is well known that Indigenous languages do not fit easily into the L2 paradigm for language acquisition (White 2006), but there is little research on critical pedagogy for Native American and Indigenous language learning (Pye and Pfeiler 2014). There is almost no information on the effectiveness of digital materials. Early evidence suggests that online learning reduces anxieties that make students feel “not Native enough” when they make mistakes in front of peers or elders (Te Huia 2013 [PhD dissertation]), but more empirical work is needed. By developing materials that future research teams can test, this project will contribute to immediate language learning needs, long-term language revitalization projects, and sustained research programs in Indigenous language acquisition.