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

Online dictionaries and smartphones may help with preservation, experts say.

Josué Robles Barnett, a member of Mexico's Seri people, demonstrates a gesture that conveys peace in a photo published in 2012. The indigenous group does not have a handshake or a wave.

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.

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.

"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.

An unidentified Seri hunter looks at his animal-skull and antler trophies in Punta Chueca, Mexico, in a photo published in 2012.

Language Barriers

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."

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