Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Language Death in Central Mexico: The Decline of Nahuatl and the New Bilingual Maintenance Programs

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Language Death in Central Mexico: The Decline of Nahuatl and the New Bilingual Maintenance Programs

Article excerpt

The article argues that Nahuatl, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico, is at risk of replacement by Spanish, the language of greater economic power, education, and social prestige. Both to promote Mexico's cultural and linguistic diversity and improve education for indigenous children, the Mexican Ministry of Education has proposed the implementation of bilingual maintenance programs. An analysis of the likelihood of the survival of Nahuatl, based in part on Fishman's (1991) model for language revitalization, and a critique of the new bilingual programs with respect to the role they may play in promoting the revitalization of Nahuatl are provided. It is concluded that current programs will assist in revitalizing Nahuatl if they obtain grassroots support in Nahuatl-speaking communities.


Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, was spoken throughout Central Mexico at the time of initial European contact. With the advent of colonialism, the Spanish language became the language of prestige and power, and began slowly to replace Nahuatl and other indigenous languages as the monolingual norm, especially in increasingly urban areas. In more remote communities, the abandonment of indigenous languages occurred much more slowly, and a diglossic state of Nahuatl-Spanish bilingualism prevailed for several centuries in central Mexico. More recently, however, Nahuatl has declined in use, as indicated by recent census data, and its low status relative to Spanish may well lead to its eventual demise.

Below I discuss the historical and linguistic context of modern Aztecs, and present recent census data and interviews with Nahuatl speakers from different regions of central Mexico. I then present an overview of current initiatives by the Mexican government to implement bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish programs purportedly aimed at improving the education of monolingual Nahuatl speakers while maintaining and promoting the use of Nahuatl in communities where it is still in use. Working within the theoretical framework of Fishman's (1991) model of language shift and revitalization, I present a positive review of these recent initiatives mixed with some specific additional recommendations for Nahuatl language revitalization.

The Language Situation of Modern Aztecs

The Nahuatl-speaking people, like speakers of Mexico's other indigenous languages, have retained their language for nearly five hundred years despite tremendous societal pressure to shift toward the adoption of Spanish. This has been possible, in part, due to the remoteness of their linguistic strongholds and the fact that "progress," with all its accompanying cultural destruction, has thus far not affected them. In a sense, whether consciously or unconsciously, today's Nahuatl speakers have paid the price of limited access to modern medical care, education and other social benefits, in the face of extreme derision from non-Nahuatl speaking Mexicans, in order to retain as much as possible of their original culture. To begin to understand the processes that have enabled Nahuati to persist in a hostile society, we turn to a brief discussion of the history and linguistic context of the Aztec people from the point of their initial clash with European culture. Current trends which point to the eventual demise of N ahuatl are discussed in the context of census and interview data.

Historical and Linguistic Background

The conquest of the Aztecs, or "Mexica" people, by Spain began in 1519 with the arrival of Hernan Cortes and was completed by 1521. From "Mexica" was derived the name "Mexico" and the language of the Mexica, Nahuatl, is also called "Mexicano" by some today. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mexica themselves had reigned supreme as one of the greatest imperial powers in the New World, demanding tribute from subjugated peoples all over Mesoamerica. Many of those peoples allied themselves with Cortes, in fact, in the fight against the Mexica, not anticipating that their fate would be far worse under the European yoke. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.