The Many Languages of Peru

Spanish dominates, but indigenous languages are still spoken

Quechua language in Peru
Cultura RM Exclusive/Philip Lee Harvey/Getty Images

If you're traveling to Peru, you probably think the language you will hear is Spanish. That's true, but Peru is a multilingual nation, and it's dominated by Spanish but also home to a multitude of indigenous tongues. The nation’s linguistic complexity is apparent in Article 48 of the Political Constitution of Peru, which officially recognizes and allows for the nation’s various languages:

“Official languages of the State are Spanish and, wherever they are predominant, Quechua, Aymara, and other native tongues in accordance with the law.”

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    Spanish

    About 84 percent of the Peruvian population speaks Spanish (known as Castellano or Espanol), making it by far the most widely spoken language in Peru. It is also the principal language of the Peruvian government, the media, and the education system.

    However, Spanish-speaking travelers in Peru will come across some slight regional variations in the language, such as changes in pronunciation and common expressions. As with so many things in Peru, these variations correspond with the nation’s three geographic regions of coast, mountains, and jungle. A coastal resident of Lima, for example, can usually identify a Peruvian from the jungle by his or her way of speaking.

    Ever-evolving Peruvian slang is also common across the country, particularly among the nation's urban youth.

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    Quechua

    Quechua is the second most common language in Peru and the most widely spoken native language. It is spoken by about 13 percent of the population, primarily in the central and southern highland regions of Peru. Quechua was the language of the Inca Empire; it existed long before the Incas came to power, but their use and promotion of the language helped it spread—and remain strong—in the Andean regions of Peru.

    Many subdivisions exist within the Quechua language family to such an extent that some Quechua-speakers find it hard to communicate with those from different regions. A member of a Quechua community in Northern Peru, for example, might struggle to communicate clearly with someone from Cusco or Puno.

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    Aymara

    There are less than half a million Aymara-speakers in Peru (about 1.7 percent of the population), but it remains the nation’s third most spoken language. The number of speakers of this language has dwindled over the centuries, having struggled against both Quechua and then Spanish.

    In modern Peru, Aymara-speakers live almost entirely in the extreme south along the border with Bolivia and around Lake Titicaca (the Uros people of the floating islands speak Aymara). Aymara is more widely spoken in Bolivia, which has about 2 million Aymara speakers.

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    Other Indigenous Languages of Peru

    Peru’s linguistic complexity reaches its peak as you head east of the Andes and into the jungle. The Peruvian Amazon Basin is home to at least 13 ethnolinguistic groups, each containing further subdivisions of native languages. The jungle department of Loreto, the largest of Peru’s administrative regions, contains the greatest diversity of native languages.

    In total, the remaining indigenous languages of Peru—such as Aguaruna, Ashaninka, and Shipibo—are spoken by less than 1 percent of the Peruvian population. Of the Peruvians that do speak an indigenous language, including Quechua and Aymara, the majority are bilingual and also speak Spanish.