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Language in Mexico

Home >> Mexico Cultural Directory >> Language in Mexico

Mexico has a wide linguistic diversity; apart from Spanish, the government recognizes 62 indigenous Amerindian languages as national languages. According to the Council for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples (CDI), 13% of the population is of Amerindian origin; nonetheless only 6% of the population speaks an Indigenous language.

Spanish is the predominant language of Mexico and de facto official language. Nonetheless, the second article of the constitution defines the country as a pluricultural nation, and recognizes the right of the indigenous peoples to "preserve and enrich their languages..." and promotes "bilingual and intercultural education" .
In 2003 the Mexican Congress approved the "General Law of linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples" which recognizes that Spanish and the Indigenous languages of México are "national languages" due to their historical background and "have the same validity in their territory, location and context". This law allows indigenous peoples to present and request official documents in their respective language. The state commits to the preservation and promotion of the use of the national languages through the activities of the "Institute of Indigenous Languages".
With around ten million speakers of an indigenous language Mexico has the second largest portion of speakers of Native american languages of the Americas after Peru. However in percentual figures the population is relatively smaller than countries as Guatemala (42,8%) and Perú (35%), and even Ecuador (9,4%) and Panamá (8,3%), and also Paraguay and Bolivia.
Other than the Nahuatl languages no indigenous language of Mexico has more than a million speakers. Nahuatl is among the native american languages with largest populations along with Quechua, aymara and guaraní and some Mayan languages.


Process of marginalization of the indigenous languages of Mexico
A slow process of displacement of the indigenous languages began from the arrival of the Spanish and the Spanish language in Mexico. Although in the beginning of colonization efforts were made by some monks and priests to describe and classify the indigenous languages (in order to facilitate the conversion of those peoples to Christianity) the Catholic Church also served as the first instrument of replacing the indigenous languages with Spanish. Philip II of Spain had decreed in 1570 that Nahuatl should become the official language of the colonies of New Spain in order to facilitate communication between the Spanish and natives of the colonies. However, in 1696 Charles II made a counter decree banning the use of any languages other than Spanish throughout the Spanish Empire.(Cifuentes, 1998). Starting from the 1700's decrees ordering the "hispanization" of the indigenous populations became more numerous, which lead to the colonizers giving up on learning the indigenous languages.
After the independence the liberal governments began undertaking steps towards building an educational system primarily aimed at the hispanization of the native populations. The idea was that this would help the indigenous peoples become a more integrated part of the new Mexican nationality.
In 1889, Antonio García Cubas calculated the percentage of indigenous speakers of Mexico to be 38%. This is contrast to previously recorded figures that calculated 60% in 1820. By the end of the 20th century this had become only 6%.
During the 20th century the policy of the Mexican governments and their officials was to deny any status as valid languages to native tongues. During this time indigenous students were forbidden to speak native languages in their schools and were often punished for doing it.

Other languages in Mexico
The "pluricultural" composition of Mexico, according to the constitution, has its roots in the indigenous peoples. However, apart from Spanish, the government does not recognize any other non-indigenous language spoken by immigrants and their descendants, even if the numer of speakers is greater than that of some of the 62 national languages.
Some of the non-indigenous languages spoken in Mexico are: English (by British, and more recently American immigrants, as well as by the residents of border states), German (mainly in Mexico City and Puebla), Arabic, Venetian (in Chipilo), French, Chinese, Korean, Ladino, Plautdietsch and others in smaller numbers. Of these, Venet and Plautdietsch are spoken in isolated communities or villages, while the rest are spoken by immigrants or their descendants that tend to live in the larger cities and towns.

Map of languages with more than 100 thousand speakers

Languages of Mexico