Bits of Red Yarn

peru croppedAlmost 30 percent of customers we’ve surveyed are motivated to use Rosetta Stone software to help them prepare for a trip to another country. During my recent vacation to Peru, I was reminded many times of the benefits of being able to speak the language of those around me—and a few times of the space separating us from those with whom we don’t share a language.

As a fluent speaker of Spanish, I’ve always gravitated toward vacations in Spanish-speaking countries. My natural curiosity about language and culture compels me to ask frequent (and probably sometimes annoying!) questions about every aspect of what I’m seeing. “What makes that fluffy foam on the top of a pisco sour?” “How do you collect the fibers of the wild vicuña?” “Why do I have to put the toilet paper in the trash can instead of the toilet?” The answers are often unexpected, but they allow me to weave together clues to understanding a different way of life.

I spent much of my time in Peru trekking on ancient Incan trails, and passing through high, isolated Andean villages where Quechua is spoken. 2010 peru 504We hadn’t gone more than a few miles before we began noticing bits of red yarn continuously dotting the trails all along the way. The men, women, and children we passed were adorned with veritable works of art: ornate skirts, knitted hats, shawls. Often, I learned, women and girls spin their yarn on the trail while herding their sheep, llamas, or alpaca. The pieces of yarn left behind are clues for those of us seeking to piece together what has unfolded on the path.

I do not speak Quechua. When I encountered someone on the trail, we exchanged smiles and mutual curiosity, but only the few words and phrases that we shared in our second languages. I couldn’t ask, “Can you show me what the quinoa plant looks like?” “Does it ever snow here in your village?” “How long did it take you to weave your lliclla?” Instead of verbal answers, I was left with bits and pieces in search of a loom. They didn’t decrease my appreciation for all I was observing, but what I gleaned were only glimpses about a way of life that will remain beyond my grasp.

The pieces of red yarn came to represent the lives, language, and culture of people so closely entwined with the natural world that even tiny fibers of yarn incorporate the plant life, animal life, and centuries-old human traditions of that unique locale. Those bits of yarn are like solitary words that, woven together, form the intricate tapestry of a language and a people.

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Marion Bittinger

Marion was fascinated with languages from an early age, and has been learning ever since. She is a 1979 Modern Languages graduate of Elizabethtown College; and 1981 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an M.A. degree in Ibero-American Studies. Teaching Spanish occupied the early years of her professional life, but she’s been a part of the Rosetta Stone family since 2003. Marion loves to travel and read, and would love to learn the endangered language of her own heritage, Pennsylvania Dutch.
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