Did You Know? Sixty-two indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico

articles History & People

Tony Burton

Did You Know…?

As many as 62 indigenous languages are still spoken in Mexico.

Most people realize that the national language of Mexico is Spanish and that Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish speaking country. In fact, its population, now numbering 100 million, represents about one-third of all the 330 million or so Spanish speakers in the world. Spanish is the majority language in nineteen other countries, besides Mexico, and is the world’s third most spoken language, after English and Chinese.

Far fewer people realize that, in addition to Spanish, another 62 indigenous languages are also spoken in Mexico. Mexico is the home of more indigenous people than any other country in the Americas. According to the recent census, about 11 million Mexicans are “indigenous”. However, about 4 million of the indigenous population no longer speak their native tribal language. The 62 living indigenous languages still in use in Mexico make the country one of the most liguistically diverse in the world, in terms of the number of languages spoken, behind Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India but well ahead of China, Brazil and just about anywhere else.

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country.

The largest indigenous groups (with their approximate numbers in 1997 in parentheses) are those speaking Nahuatl (2,563,000), Maya (1,490,000), Zapotec (785,000) and Mixtec (764,000), followed by those using Otomí (566,000), Tzeltal (547,000) and Tzotzil (514,000). Other well known groups include the 204,000 having Purépecha (or Tarasco) as their first language and the 122,000 speaking Tarahumara.

At the other end of the spectrum, only about 130 people still speak Lacandón and only 80 use Kiliwa. Only 60 people still use Aguacateco in Mexico and only 50 speak Techtiteco (or simply Teco), though both languages are spoken by several thousand Indians in neighboring Guatemala.

It is perhaps not surprising that the tribes speaking three of the four “most endangered” languages all live in the very poor southern state of Chiapas, close to the Guatemala border. However, the Kiliwa-speaking group is located at the other end of the country, near Ensenada in Baja California, only a few miles from the U.S. border!

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget, before we close the subject of languages, that many Mexicans not only speak Spanish and one or another indigenous language, but also manage pretty well in English, French, Japanese and many other languages!

[The majority of figures used in this article come from publications of the National Indigenous Institute (INI) and the National Institute for Geography and Statistics (INEGI).]

Copyright 2002 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.
Published or Updated on: March 14, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008


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