Spanish is Mexico’s official language, but it’s neither the first nor the only language spoken there. Long before the conquistadors arrived on the country’s shores, indigenous groups spoke languages of their own.
In fact, when Mexico was governed by Spain, the colonial government initially made the indigenous language Nahuatl the official language of the new colony, but that ended in 1696 when Spanish was declared the official language and official policies began to encourage its exclusive use by native groups. By 1820, only 60% of the population spoke a native language. By 1889, that number had fallen to 38%, and today it’s down to just 6% of the population.
Currently, there are 86 native languages with 364 dialects spoken in Mexico, but the National Institute of Indian Languages stated last Tuesday that number may soon decrease even further. According to a report by the Associated Press, 64 native tongues are “at high risk” of dying out. Though the country’s constitution recognizes the right of indigenous people to speak their own language, Spanish is culturally dominant.
Javier Lopez Sanchez, who leads the institute, told the AP that as a result, “There are entire communities where the children don’t speak their Indian language.”
Language expert Francisco Barriga says that reversing the decline means improving the visibility of the endangered languages:
“Children … turn on the television, go to school, they try to integrate themselves, and Spanish is omnipresent. The key issue is to make Indian languages present in the media.”
Meanwhile, linguist Juan Bueno Holle, of the University of Chicago, said that some communities have maintained pride in their language despite marginalization:
“There are definitely other circles where it’s very prestigious to speak, and to speak it well, and not mix Spanish…Everyone that I’ve been in touch with has been very eager to share.”
The key, as always, is to make sure that the language maintains its prestige among children as well as adults. When it comes to language preservation, “Children are the future” is much more than a cliché.