We often forget that Spanish was not always spoken in Mexico, or that Portuguese is a recent import to Brazil. Latin America is rich in indigenous languages. Nearly two thousand languages have been spoken in Latin America, some over large territories.
Law of Linguistic Rights
In 2003 the Mexican congress approved a ‘Law of Linguistic Rights’ which officially made 68 indigenous languages of Mexico official languages of the country, along with Spanish. The law also promotes bilingualism in these languages in order to preserve them. Mexico has 6 million people who speak indigenous languages. Roughly half are bilingual in their native language along with Spanish, while the remainder speak only the traditional tongue.
The language of the Aztecs – Nauhuatl – survives today with over 1.7 million speakers. Nahuatl became the common language of the peoples conquered by the Aztecs. Many European explorers and missionaries learned it in order to communicate with native populations.
To get a sense of what modern Nahuatl sounds like, take a look at this beautiful video with Spanish subtitles.
For classical Nahuatl, check out this superb reading of an account from an early missionary.
A few words from ancient Nahuatl survive today. The words avocado, chili, and tomato all come from ancient Nahuatl words – āhuacatl, chīlli, and tomatl!
Quechua, the language of the Incas, has between 8 and 10 million speakers today. It is primarily spoken in Peru. Nearly a quarter of Peruvians can speak a Quechuan language. Peruvian broadcasters have recently created a morning news program entirely in Quechua to promote its use and better reach its native speaking populations.
Here is a video of one such broadcast from 2016.
Bolivia is also home to a large Quechuan population. It has nearly three million speakers alone.
Mayan is a language family that has many regional dialects. The ancient Maya spoke a language that was the common ancestor for the many languages spoken today. As a whole, Mayan languages have over six million speakers. Some of the Mayan languages include Chorti, Tzotzil, and Huastec.
In many regions the indigenous languages are dying out as children are not always taught the language of their parents or grandparents. Revived interest and better record-keeping means that hopefully none of the languages currently spoken will ever be lost.