Mexican Indigenous Languages

Languages Spoken in Mexico

Mexico's Indigenous Languages
Courtesy Mexican Congress

Mexico is an extremely diverse country, both biologically (it's considered megadiverse, and is among the top five countries in the world in terms of biodiversity) and culturally. Spanish is Mexico's official language, and just over 60% of the population is mestizo, that is, a mix of indigenous and European heritage. But indigenous groups make up a significant part of the population, and many of those groups still conserve their traditions and speak their language.

Mexico is among the top ten countries with the greatest linguistic diversity in the world and the second in number of living languages in the Americas

Languages of Mexico

The Mexican government recognizes 68 indigenous languages that are still spoken today though considering the variants of those languages, which in some cases may be considered distinct languages themselves, we could count hundreds. These languages spring from about 11 different language families. Sadly, many of them have few speakers or speakers who are of advanced age, so they are in danger of disappearing in the coming years. Along with the language, many aspects of the culture will also be lost.

The following table shows the indigenous languages spoken in Mexico with the name of the language as it is called by speakers of that language appearing in parenthesis and the number of speakers.

Mexican Indigenous Languages and Number of Speakers

Náhuatl2,563,000
Maya1,490,000
Zapoteco (Diidzaj)785,000
Mixteco (ñuu savi)764,000
Otomí (ñahñu)566,000
Tzeltal (k'op)547,000
Tzotzil or (batzil k'op)514,000
Totonaca (tachihuiin)410,000
Mazateco (ha shuta enima)339,000
Chol274,000
Mazahua (jñatio)254,000
Huasteco (tének)247,000
Chinanteco (tsa jujmi)224,000
Purépecha (tarasco)204,000
Mixe (ayook)188,000
Tlapaneco (mepha)146,000
Tarahumara (rarámuri)122,000
Zoque (o'de püt)88,000
Mayo (yoreme)78,000
Tojolabal (tojolwinik otik)74,000
Chontal de Tabasco (yokot'an)72,000
Popoluca69,000
Chatino (cha'cña)66,000
Amuzgo (tzañcue)63,000
Huichol (wirrárica)55,000
Tepehuán (o'dam)44,000
Triqui (driki)36,000
Popoloca28,000
Cora (naayeri)27,000
Kanjobal(27,000)
Yaqui (yoreme)25,000
Cuicateco (nduudu yu)24,000
Mame (qyool)24,000
Huave (mero ikooc)23,000
Tepehua (hamasipini)17,000
Pame (xigüe)14,000
Chontal de Oaxaca (slijuala xanuk)13,000
Chuj3,900
Chichimeca jonaz (uza)3,100
Guarijío (varojío)3,000
Matlatzinca (botuná)1,800
Kekchí1,700
Chocholteca (chocho)1,600
Pima (otam)1,600
Jacalteco (abxubal)1,300
Ocuilteco (tlahuica)1,100
Seri (konkaak)910
Quiché640
Ixcateco620
Cakchiquel610
Kikapú (kikapoa)580
Motozintleco (mochó)500
Paipai (akwa'ala)410
Kumiai (kamia)360
Ixil310
Pápago (tono ooh'tam)270culturally and 
Cucapá260
Cochimí240
Lacandón (hach t'an)130
Kiliwa (k'olew)80
Aguacateco60
Teco50

Data from CDI, Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas

The indigenous language that's spoken by the largest group of people by far is Náhuatl, with over two and a half million speakers. Náhuatl is the language spoken by the Mexica (pronounced meh-shee-ka) people, who are also sometimes referred to as Aztecs, who live mainly in the central part of Mexico.

The second-most-spoken indigenous language is Maya, with about one and a half million speakers. The Maya live in Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula. The third most spoken indigenous language in Mexico is Zapotec, with over 700 thousand speakers. The Zapotec live mainly in the southern state of Oaxaca.

International Day of the Mother Tongue

When we speak of mother tongues we are referring to all the languages of the world, since it is with this term that we identify the language we acquired at home, through our parents and other family members. The General Conference of UNESCO approved the initiative to celebrate the International Mother Language Day on February 21, and it was proclaimed by the General Assembly in 2002. Due to the risk to minority languages, the cultural and intellectual heritage of peoples, UNESCO has given priority to promote and strengthen cultural and linguistic diversity for the formation of sustainable societies, preserving cultural differences and languages in favor of tolerance and the respect.

In January 2006, UNESCO appointed a strategic monitoring body (the special team on languages and multilingualism) and an operational surveillance structure (the network of language coordination centers) to promote efforts in all countries.

related sectors and services that promote the use of languages in multilingual environments. As of February 2008, this Organization works at an international level to, among other tasks, develop coherent linguistic policies at a national and regional level, in accordance with its medium-term strategy.

An International Day is an international recognition that sensitizes and draws attention to an important and pending issue in societies, so that governments and States act, taking relevant measures and fo course for citizens to demand their attention. In short, the United Nations takes the opportunity to show a way to the States by promoting actions that they can adopt in the search for solutions.

February 21 is a commemoration that adds to the initiatives to strengthen the identities based on the use of the mother tongue and therefore of the linguistic rights.

The Future of Mexico's Indigenous Languages

The Mexican government has undertaken some measures to try to maintain Mexico's indigenous languages. The Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indigenas (INALI) is the government institution in Mexico that is charged with the task of sustaining and promoting these languages. Learn more through their website. inali.gob.mx