Mexico's Dying Languages: Spanish Is Overtaking Many Native Tongues

By Hetrick, Keturah | The Futurist, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Mexico's Dying Languages: Spanish Is Overtaking Many Native Tongues


Hetrick, Keturah, The Futurist


One-third of the world's languages are in danger of extinction, but in Mexico, the problem is even worse. Of 143 indigenous languages, 60 are in danger of extinction, according to a statement from the Center for Research and High Studies in Social Anthropology. Of those, 21 are considered critically endangered.

More than 6 million of Mexico's 120 million inhabitants speak indigenous languages, but most are bilingual. Students learn Spanish from a young age, and Spanish is the primary language used in the classroom and, often, in the workplace. Over time, there's been a shift away from needing to speak indigenous languages.

Part of that shift is taking place on the playground: Children whose families have moved from a different region or country probably won't know the native language in their new town. The bilingual children they encounter are willing to accommodate children who speak Spanish only, and children play and communicate using Spanish instead of the native language.

In other cases, children and adults are able to speak the region's indigenous language but are more comfortable using Spanish. The divide is often generational, with children and young adults more comfortable speaking Spanish and older adults who speak a native language almost exclusively. This can lead to communication issues: It's not uncommon for a grandchild to respond in Spanish to a question his grandmother asks in her native language.

The Mexican government is interested in preserving the country's indigenous languages. Schools that have tried to promote mother-tongue literacy have found it difficult to institute a bilingual curriculum, because teachers often came from different regions and weren't fluent in the respective native languages themselves.

"One-size-fits-all" approaches to indigenous language literacy can also impede progress. Take, for example, the Zapotec language group. Although related, the dozens of varieties within the Zapotec group are mutually unintelligible to speakers of other varieties. …

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