Sixty Languages at Risk of Extinction in Mexico—Can They Be Kept Alive?


Of the 143 native languages in Mexico, 60 are at risk of being silenced forever, linguists say.

One language, Ayapenaco, is spoken fluently by just two elderly men who aren't even on speaking terms. Another indigenous language, Kiliwa, is spoken by only 36 people.

While 60 of Mexico's native tongues are at risk, 21 are critically endangered, with only a few elderly speakers left, according to a statement released recently by Mexico's Centre of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS). 

The languages most at risk in Mexico—including the Zapotec, the Chatino, and the Seri tongues—are undergoing "rapid change" for a number of reasons, says Lourdes de León Pasquel, a linguist at CIESAS. Among them are "migration, social instability, [and] economic and ideological factors that push speakers to adopt Spanish."

Mexico isn't the only country losing its voices: If nothing is done, about half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century, according to UNESCO's Endangered Languages Programme website.

It's vital to save languages because they "are the primary conduit for human culture," says K. David Harrison, a linguist and co-leader of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project.

Mexico is a good example of that, Harrison said in an email interview: "Each of the Mexican indigenous languages contains millennia of human experience, wisdom, and practical knowledge about the natural environment."

León Pasquel argues that to preserve Mexico's threatened languages, "there should be an integrated policy to keep them alive: bilingual education [and] design of school curricula and bilingual materials. But more importantly, teacher training is basic to achieve this goal and that is what we lack."

Because Spanish is the dominant language in the workplace and Mexicans are typically taught Spanish in school, many Mexicans may have less interest in their region's native tongue, she said. But in her view, "Everybody should learn an indigenous language apart from Spanish."

Keeping Voices Alive

Losing languages is "neither inevitable nor irreversible," according to UNESCO's Endangered Languages website. There are many efforts under way worldwide to boost learning and speaking of languages in decline, especially for younger generations.

Written By: Christine Dell’Amore
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  1. The sensational
    Museo Nacional de Antropología

    is committed to science and the pursuit of discovery.

    I wonder why there isn’t action by this institution to record interviews with even the pair of grumpy old men who won’t speak to each other, and at least preserve the sounds. There is always a chance that someone in the future may have the interest, time & resources to decode the languages and stories.

  2. I have never understand why we should preserve languages.Language is for communication and so really we only need one, so what do we gain by keeping another 6000, most of which are spoken by hardly anyone?

    • In reply to #2 by Eamonn Shute:

      I have never understand why we should preserve languages.Language is for communication and so really we only need one, so what do we gain by keeping another 6000, most of which are spoken by hardly anyone?

      My thoughts as well. Record and preserve dying languages and the associated culture by all means but having a common language is very important. I’ve watched NES ( non-English speaking ) migrants at close quarters while they struggle with their new tongue. They often feel alienated from their new country as they miss the nuances of language ( especially jokes and idiomatic usage).

      This article is not about migrants of course, but I think being isolated by language in one’s own community would be even worse. Facility with language is not a skill common to all. We assume the remaining speakers are bilingual, Spanish + the indigenous language they speak, though maybe accommodating the two does not come easily.

      I realise that this point of view is regarded as heresy by many. I also consider efforts to artificially sustain languages as is the case in Wales and Ireland is an exercise in futility. A good way to learn about one’s heritage, but doomed in the long run.

    • In reply to #2 by Eamonn Shute:

      I have never understand why we should preserve languages. Language is for communication and so really we only need one, so what do we gain by keeping another 6000, most of which are spoken by hardly anyone?

      and that ‘one’ should be English Im guessing because….you speak it… that why ‘we’ don’t need another 6000…..
      but maybe the 6000 language speakers do need their language and chose to speak it, maintain it, treasure it…
      do you realise how uncompassionate you sound… your lack of understanding….
      Its not an old book we are talking about but peoples actual everyday lives
      Aboriginal Australians among many others have known almost nothing but their own languages and rarely have to confront English speakers….but when they do – they can speak English loosely….
      the English language itself is ever evolving and is an amalgam of French, Germanic and Latin words….
      which all conspired to exterminate the native Pictish Language of Scotland and old Cornish and many more in Britain…
      I’d be happy if the world language of communication was French…but I couldn’t get my tongue around Mandarin for example…

  3. Keeping laguages alive artificially serves no-one, and may hinder the life prospects of those forced to learn a dying tongue. By all means document and record them, but don’t play King Canute with public money. Incidentally, when the European Union was first conceived of (over 60 years ago), logic suggests that the very first item on the agenda should have been the adoption of a common second language. Being Europeans, this of course proved impossible, and now we are forever encumbered by the expensive Towers of Babel that are Brussels and Strasbourg.

  4. Keep in mind that it’s the job of the experts quoted here to save languages so they have a built in bias. I agree that the idea that losing some language that is currently spoken by two guys who won’t talk to each other seems to not be much of a catastrophe. Just to play devil’s advocate one of the tragedies of colonialism was that the missionaries who paved the way for the exploitation of the land by the colonial powers often did so by obliterating the native language/culture and replacing them with Christianity and as they say in a South Park episode “God’s language: English”. So I can understand why there is a strong desire to save the native languages and cultures that are still left but I agree with everyone else, it doesn’t seem that significant.

    I also detect a point of view in this article that is prevalent in the humanities but that Steven Pinker argues very strongly against, the idea that somehow a language is as or more important than the ideas expressed in that language, that you can express things in a native language that fundamentally can’t be said in a different language. This hypothesis is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Pinker argues very convincingly against it in books like The Blank Slate.

  5. If people do not want to speak a language and have no need for it, it makes no sense, nor is there any justification, for a government to spend public money on trying to get them to speak it.

  6. Sorry, but I do not see the point of keeping them. If anything, The human race has more than enough languages to cope with.
    If we are keeping them for the sake of keeping them, the same logic should apply to octal computer code.
    (note – the chap in the picture is using sign language)

    • In reply to #7 by old-toy-boy:

      (note – the chap in the picture is using sign language)

      According to the caption he’s using a gesture that demonstrates peace. That’s the same as giving someone the finger or the peace sign. That is not the same as American Sign Language or other sign languages that are actually true languages in the mathematical sense with grammar and semantics.

  7. It is inevitable that some languages will die. However, it is terrible that here in the United States early in the 20th century that indigenous cultures were attacked on several fronts including the forbidding of teaching or speaking of native languages in schools. I think it is great when a long oppressed people can keep their language as part of their culture. At the very least society should not push for the extinction of languages.

    Furthermore, as someone of Irish descent I do lament the fact that my ancestors had to give up their language.

  8. But there is a difference between the deliberate killing of a language, for example as the Europeans tried to do in the New World to the tribal tongues (even into the 20th century), and what is going on with most of these dying languages–they are dying of the natural cause of attrition. Academically regrettable, worthy of study for its own sake, but not a matter for beating our breasts over or going to great lengths to save.

    That said, though, I wish I had better access to Yiddish, the mother tongue of 3 of my grandparents. In my mind I still hear them and my aunts and uncles speaking it, and I feel a great nostalgia. My own grown children never experienced that ancestral language.

    • In reply to #12 by Martin Vest:

      I’ve always despised language fragmentation, the less languages we have the better for everyone.

      This is off topic but your comment reminded me of some dialog from one of my favorite classic Dr. Who episodes:

      Brigadier Leftbridge Stuart: So the UN decided that Britain was the only nation that could be trusted with this.

      The Doctor: Well of course the rest are all foreigners.

      Brigadier: (as usual not getting the joke) Yes, precisely.

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