Endangered Languages in Mexico

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.


Documentary Preserves a Dead Language

A while back, we wrote about the last two speakers of Mexico’s Ayapaneco language. Although the two elderly gentlemen, Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez, share a native language, they haven’t spoken in decades.

Now, a new documentary, Lengua Muerta, will preserve the sounds of the language indefinitely.

Director Denisse Quintero told Fox News that at the moment, Ayapaneco, also called Ayapa Zoque, is the world’s most endangered language:

“We’re beginning to investigate and we’re discovering that it is the language that is vanishing most rapidly in Mexico and worldwide. It’s the one with the fewest speakers, just two, and they’re elderly. When they die, it will practically cease to exist.”

Producer Laura Berron admitted that saving the language is impossible at this point, but told Fox that she thought it was important to preserve a record of it anyway:

“It’s not a rescue, but rather it consists of creating an audiovisual registry, a memory, so that other generations can have access to it, given that it’s very difficult to rescue the language.”

The only tiny glimmer of hope for the language is Manuel Segovia’s 30-year-old son. Named after his father, he is also trying to carry on with the Ayapaneco language. However, he didn’t learn it as a child so it’s difficult now.

Social stigma was the main thing that drove Ayapaneco to its grave, Segovia’s son told the Latin American Herald Tribune:

“When this language is spoken many people make fun of it or give it nicknames, or they even tell you that only Indians speak that language, and here the word Indian for some people is an insult, a symbol of humiliation.”

The producers hope that Lengua Muerta can be shown as a sort of cautionary tale to indigenous communities facing similar challenges, to inspire them to value their own culture more highly before it becomes too late.

Oaxaca Indigenous Language

The state of Oaxaca is home to 53 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population. Approximately 1,091,502  people in Oaxaca speak an indigenous language in addition to, or instead of, Spanish. The native people of this region have clung fiercely to their ancient traditions and cultures, assisted by the rugged, mountainous terrain that has historically shielded them somewhat from the outside world.

In the past, indigenous Oaxacan parents often chose to home school their children, teaching them practical skills and traditional arts and crafts, rather than send to schools where they would be taught exclusively in Spanish. However, a recent article from the Guardian points out that this strategy is no longer working, and has in fact become counterproductive:

“Self-sufficiency is the historic norm in Oaxaca, but in recent decades as rural life has become increasingly entretejidos – interwoven – with the modern market economy, Zapotec children who have not gone to school are finding themselves on the wrong side of an urban-rural education divide that excludes them from employment and contributes to deepening poverty.”

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