I'm mexican. My grandfather used to speak some dialect of Popoloca, a Central-Mexico language. But after he leaves his hometown, to find a job in Mexico City he lost it. My father did't learn the language neither did I. I can understand spanish of course, english and a little of french, but not my grandfather's dialect. That makes me feell like a jew who doesn't know hebrew.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Published April 10, 2014
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). (Read about vanishing languages in National Geographic magazine.)
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.
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.
"Mexico is indeed home to many endangered languages, but also to many language-revitalization efforts—for example, among the Zapotec and Chatino communities in Oaxaca, and the Seri," Harrison said.
For instance, Harrison has been working with a team of linguists, partially sponsored by National Geographic, to build a talking dictionary for Zapotec speakers in the Tlacolula Valley.
"The Tlacolula Zapotec are a rural, agrarian community, but they are quickly crossing the digital divide, and eager to create digital tools and resources for their language," Harrison said. (See "'English Goes in One Ear and Out Another': An Endangered Language Perspective.")
Listen to some Zapotec phrases:
Harrison said he considers the Zapotec speakers "a great example of how endangered language communities are leveraging new technologies—especially smartphones—to maintain their heritage languages."
León Pasquel agreed that new communication technology can help keep languages going. For instance, adding language-specific buttons to keypads on cell phones and computers would be a "great support" to people who speak these endangered tongues, she said.
Linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Penfield works with the Endangered Languages Project, an online resource for vanishing languages. Because the world is interconnected like never before, she says, more people are exposed to and speaking the globe's dominant languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish.
"Of the 2,000 or so African languages, most are endangered," she said in an email interview. "Mexico is no more susceptible than anywhere else impacted by globalization."
Penfield is convinced that "in most communities, there is a desire to slow the process of loss, and revitalize" threatened native languages. "There has been some remarkable success with this," she said. "But it is an uphill battle."
It is very sad in my own experience that my family had to lose our native language in my own country in order to become 'educated and be civilised' in the western way to get ahead in life. I think it was exploitation under colonial rule everywhere. Cultures are rich in a sense with their traditions, language and way of life. In hindsight it is a sad experience for me. Today I live in the western world and there is no way I can revive my language ....so much is lost to my regret.
I think about the loss that goes alone with the loss of language, and I shudder. There is so much...freedom of expression that an entire lingual system offers, and there is so much history in spoken word. If the connotation of a language is lost because the language is no longer spoken, the human condition loses a great artistic bridge and the world becomes a smaller place.
English, French, Spanish and Portuguese have made much more lingual and cultural attach since centuries.
The article under represents native culture that exists throughout the hemisphere and extends itself from Alaska to the tip of South America. There are many who are concerned about the "vanishing" cultures of Africa and the Americas, but in US where many native people exist in the shadows of American culture; they are the invisible. The schools systems in the US teach a host of European languages, but there are no coursed t hat teach native Languages as a foreign language course..
This is one of the most idiotic articles I've ever read. I'm sure nobody speaks the language of someone living in Greece 10,000 years ago yet we still go on.
I've loved languages all of my life and have been blessed with a gift for language. How is it that I had NO idea that there were so many languages in Mexico? I wouldn't have guessed any number CLOSE to this. I'm just amazed...
My late wife was born in the USA to Ladino-speaking parents from Salonica, spoke it exclusively until the age of five and, with family old-timers to speak with, never lost her fluency in it. Years ago at a Jewish street fair in Manhattan's Lower East Side, we met two young Sephardim from Brooklyn who had started a group and newsletter called "Adelantre!" to generate interest in Ladino, but apparently, it never caught on..
@Kristianna Thomas I mostly agree with you, however, I feel that NG wanted to focus on the region they had data & similar articles for, hence the focus on just Mexico. I agree, however, that there are many (and I re-emphasize, MANY) Native cultures that are getting swept away in these cultural "melting pots".
Fortunately for us in Canada, there is a modest effort at maintaining/reviving Native American, Inuit, and Metis cultures; in Ontario, for instance, there are Native language courses taught in ways similar to how French is taught, and in Nunavut many signs are written with the Latin alphabet as well as with Inuktitut syllabics. However, it is important to note that the Native languages taught are limited in scope - Cayuga, Cree, Delaware, Mohawk, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, and Oneida - but at least it is something.
@pedro maiz The native cultures that exist in Mexico and the US where here long before Columbus and Ponce de Leon. The Conquistadors tried to force Spanish onto the native population as a means of control, as did the Americans who tried to force English on to native nations in North America. Native languages are not the same as Latin, spoken by well to do in Greek society; for they are living languages spoken by a people whose roots date back several thousand years on the continent. Most "Americans" want the native people to become extinct as Kit Carson once said, "the only good Indian is a dead one."
@pedro maiz you can't be serious. I am in awe that people still think like you do. Language is beautiful and the individuality of it all expresses only what one's imagination can express. for example, think of lost civilizations and their stories that we'll never know or science we'll never understand because a language is lost forever. language lost equals the fate of a civilization. teach your children well.
@ideogram tianya 可你忘记了一点，这不是自然淘汰，而是文化侵略。
@ideogram tianya 居然能在这里看到中文，甚感欣慰。
Do you know of any Costa Rican movies that have indigenous characters? I can only find one, "Intima Raiz". Are there more? Thank you.
From impossibly fuzzy chicks to superfast divers, see some of our favorite National Geographic pictures of penguins in action.
Fish are easy pickings after this slow-moving predator blasts them with a cloud of insulin.
A grueling trek through a jungle, followed by a treacherous climb: How one team took on one of mountaineering's biggest tests.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.