I’m often asked: “What language do they speak in Paraguay?” I have an amazing talent of making a very simple question into a very complicated answer. It depends on what you mean by “in Paraguay.” We could mention the 17 tribal languages that we have in Paraguay. We could talk about the large Mennonite communities that speak German. We could include the high quantity of Brazilian and Korean immigrants. But what most people mean by “in Paraguay” is what does a Paraguayan national person speak? The answer to this question is also complicated. The official answers are Spanish and Guaraní. They are both officially national languages (completed unrelated languages by the way). But perhaps a better answer is the unofficial answer.
Your average Paraguayan national person speaks neither Spanish nor Guaraní. Rather, they speak what is called Jopará (mixture). There is a traditional Paraguayan soup called Jopará. This soup is called mixture because you take beans and you take corn, mix them together, and you have one soup. That’s how the language Jopará works as well. You take Spanish, mix it with Guaraní, and you get Jopará which is neither Spanish nor Guaraní.
To clarify, many Paraguayans can speak pure Spanish. Others can speak pure Guaraní. However, neither of these languages are what we would consider the heart language of majority Paraguayans. The language that they speak to their family, to their close friends, to discuss the weather, to discuss sports games…these relaxed situations you’ll find that many, if not most, speak Jopará.
Up to this point, my wife and I have studied Spanish along with Paraguayan culture. Knowing pure Spanish is very important for us as foreigners. However, now that I have a decent grasp of Spanish, we are taking advantage of our continued national language acquisition time to study Jopará. For the past month I’ve been taking part of an intense course to get me going in my Jopará learning.
Some things in Jopará are easy to learn if you know Spanish. For example, the word for sheep in Spanish is “oveja” (oh-vay-ha). In Jopará it’s “ovecha” (oh-vay-SHAH). The word for onion is Spanish is “cebolla” (say-bo-yah). In Jopará it’s “sevoi” (say-boy). To say I understand in Spanish it’s “entiendo” (en-tea-en-doe). In Jopará it’s “atende” (ah-ten-DAY). These borrowed words from Spanish really speeds up the learning process.
But then just when you get excited, you realize it’s a different language completely. For starters, there are 5 vowels in Spanish. In Jopará there are 14. Did your brain just explode? Most Americans can’t fathom more than 5 vowels in a language, since we have it ingrained from grade school that there are only 5. But really, more than 5 vowels is very common worldwide. The most problematic of all the Jopará vowels for English speakers is written “y”. This vowel is pronounced by smiling a very tight smile, your mouth is barely open and then try to make a very pure “u” sound (like in the word blue) without moving your lips. It sounds like the noise my mom makes when I tell her I ate guinea pig in Ecuador when I was 16.
As I have started learning Jopará, it has opened up an entirely new world to us in Paraguay. Since Jopará tends to be the language of choice between close friends and in relaxed environments, we have never been able to truly 100% enter those worlds with Spanish. Jopará is opening doors that have never been opened before.
My gardener is a Jopará speaker, and is visibly uncomfortable with Spanish. Up until recently I could barely get this guy to look at me, let alone start a friendship. By speaking Spanish to him, I was unfortunately keeping him at arm’s length. A few weeks ago I began to greet him in Jopará and converse very limitedly. My interaction is so limited, I figured it might even be hurting our relationship rather than helping. However, strangely enough, it has opened him up to me. We actually visited for a bit the last time he came to cut my grass. He stops and talked to me now when we pass each other in the street. We are actually starting a friendship, and I’m convinced Jopará was the catalyst.
Pray for us as we continue to progress in Spanish, and now as we learn Jopará.