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Photo of a man demonstrating a hand gesture.

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.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Christine Dell'Amore

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."

Map of locations of endangered languages in Mexico.

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."

Photo of a Mexican woman.
Isabel Chavela Torres, shown in a photo published in 2012 in Punta Chueca, Mexico, is said to have passed on traditional knowledge despite being blind and nearly deaf.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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.

Photo of a hunter looking at his animal skull and antler trophies.
An unidentified Seri hunter looks at his animal-skull and antler trophies in Punta Chueca, Mexico, in a photo published in 2012.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

18 comments
Travis Nietzswie
Travis Nietzswie

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.

Hannah George
Hannah George

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.

Max Bruns
Max Bruns

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.

Elisheva Diaz
Elisheva Diaz

I may have missed something but I did not see "Ladino" as one of the languages. 

Wenli YAO
Wenli YAO

English, French, Spanish and Portuguese have made much more lingual and cultural attach since centuries.

Kristianna Thomas
Kristianna Thomas

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..  

pedro maiz
pedro maiz

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. 

Karla Prescott
Karla Prescott

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...   

ideogram tianya
ideogram tianya

自然规律。历史发展的必然,在中国海南省的城市里,海南话已经接近消亡。城市里海南人的孩子不会讲海南话,已经是不争的事实。没有必要大惊小怪。物竞天择,达尔文已经揭示了这一客观规律。

BERNARD BOKENFOHR
BERNARD BOKENFOHR

We have about 3 or 4 indigenous tongues in Costa Rica , all which are at risk to dissapear.

Perry Hamburg
Perry Hamburg

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..

Donna Lee
Donna Lee

@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. 

Kristianna Thomas
Kristianna Thomas

@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." 

E. Heintzman
E. Heintzman

@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.

Oliver Huang
Oliver Huang

@ideogram tianya  居然能在这里看到中文,甚感欣慰。

在中国的其他一些地方,对于地方方言的保护已经开始了。方言也许并不能成为广泛交流的语言,但是它的彻底消亡对于人类文明而言无疑是一大损失

Douglas Cooke
Douglas Cooke

@BERNARD BOKENFOHR

Do you know of any Costa Rican movies that have indigenous characters?   I can only find one, "Intima Raiz". Are there more? Thank you.


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