The Disappearing Languages of Indigenous Peoples Mia Li

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. The top 10 languages have more than one hundred million native speakers: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Lahnda.

But on the other end of the spectrum there are 1,955 languages have less than 1,000 speakers, and 144 languages that now have under 10 native speakers. One language disappears every two weeks taking with it much of the culture and knowledge of the peoples that once spoke it. At this rate, many linguists predict that half of the world's languages will disappear by the end of the century. Unfortunately, most indigenous languages, particularly the ones spoken in Latin America, are in great danger of extinction.

Source: Ethnologue: Languages of the World (

Indigenous Languages in Latin America

Prior to European contact, there were an estimated 1,750 indigenous languages in Latin America; however, most of those languages did not survive the Spanish colonization. Today, only 300 indigenous languages are still spoken in Latin America; with Quechua being dominant.

It is not clear when Quechua first originated, but by the end of the 14th century a large number of indigenous groups across the Andes already adopted Quechua as their language. Whenever Quechua spread to new regions, it incorporated existing local languages and then developed some forms of dialects. Today's Quechua, with nine different dialects, is the most diverse indigenous language in Latin America.

Quechua's expansion and dominance were largely thank to the Inca Empire, which used Quechua as its official language for almost one hundred years. After the Spanish conquest, Quechua continued to be used by indigenous peoples as well as some of the Spanish colonists. The first Spanish colonists to learn Quechua were Jesuits; they focused on translating religious materials into indigenous languages. Their attempts produced the oldest written records of Quechua in 1560. More and more Spanish colonizers, and Criollos (Latin Americans of Spanish descent) learned Quechua in order to communicate with indigenous leaders. It was not until the late 18th century, colonial authority banned the official use of Quechua for administrative and religious purposes. Though the prestige of Quechua gradually declined since then, the language continued to be passed down from generation to generation.

In 1975, Peru recognized Quechua as one of its three official languages. Today, Quechua has approximately 8 to 10 million speakers; most of them live in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many indigenous leaders have actively promoted Quechua and other indigenous languages in Peru. In 2006, Hilaria Supa, an indigenous Quechua speaker and an Peruvian politician, became the first parliamentarian in Peru's history to take the oath in Quechua.

Hilaria Supa in parliamentary debate

Endangered Languages

Quechua is one of a very few indigenous languages that still has a relative large number of speakers today. Most of the indigenous languages in Latin America are spoken by fewer than 5,000 people making them endangered.

Source: UNESCO (

According to the UNESCO, the critical criteria to determine how the endangered for a language is whether the young children can speak or are actively learning the language. Though an indigenous language can still have a large number of native speakers, it is endangered if the elderly speakers do not pass the language on to younger generations and the language is not across all domains.

The survival of Indigenous languages in Latin America often faces two main obstacles. First, most of indigenous languages do not have written forms. When languages are only be passed down orally from generation to generation, they are at greater risk of being lost forever. Secondly, indigneous children may only have the opportunity to study in the majority language, such as Spanish, or, the children might be socialized to prefer to speak Spanish or Portuguese. When the parents or children come to think indigenous languages as socially inferior with no economic advancement, they tend to use the majority language as a gateway into the majority culture.

But when a language goes silent, the community's cultural heritage, identity, and history are lost forever.

Indigenous communities in Latin America have profound insights of how to manage lands, how to protect forest animals and plants, and how to maintain local biodiversity and global ecosystems. When an indigenous language is lost, so too is the valuable knowledge.

Source: The Endangered Languages Project (

Top 5 Most Endangered Indigenous Languages in Latin America

1. Yaghan Language

  • Critically Endangered
  • Native Speaker: 1, one elderly female in Villa Ukika on Isla Navarino
  • Ethnic Population: 1,685
  • Region: Chile

2. Tehuelche Language

  • Critically Endangered
  • Native Speakers: 2
  • Ethnic Population: 10,590
  • Region: Argentina

3. Xipáya Language

  • Critically Endangered
  • Native Speakers: 2
  • Ethnic Population: 595
  • Region: Brazil

4. Kanoê Language

  • Critically Endangered
  • Native Speakers: 5
  • Ethnic Population: 95
  • Region: Brazil

5. Chamicuro Language

  • Critically Endangered
  • Native Speakers: 8
  • Ethnic Population: 126
  • Region: Peru

New Hope

If no action is taken to preserve and protect indigenous languages and cultures, the world will soon lose much of its linguistic and cultural diversity. Fortunately, more and more people are beginning to protect and revitalize endangered languages and to defend peoples' right to speak and write in their mother tongues.

Today community-driven projects to document indigenous languages such as those by The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages online "Talking Dictionaries." are fighting for the survival of these languages. This project works by providing digital skills workshops to help indigenous language activists to document, and record words and phrases in their native languages and having linguists collect the materials to create an online talking dictionary containing tens of thousands of words, images, and the sounds of these endangered languages.

The Endangered Languages Project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity collaborated with Google to generate a powerful language map. This map not only shows all the endangered languages at various different degrees, but also presents the languages' geographical origins and locations of current native speakers. Endangered Language Project is open source, which gives anyone access to the most up to date information on endangered languages. And if you have information and language samples in text, audio, or video files, the project welcomes any submissions.

But the most important way to safeguard a language is to ensure that children have the right and opportunity to learn and use their native tongues. Many young indigenous peoples are dedicating themselves to promote their mother tongues through various channels. In the video below, the two Emberá brothers make environmental and earth themed rap videos to help indigenous youth learn and appreciate their unique languages. Efforts like these can thrive when indigenous communities have the right to their lands, and access to education that respects their cultural heritage and sustainable development projects that allow member of the community to stay on their ancestral lands. By working together we can make sure that states recognize indigenous peoples' right to their languages; ensuring that communities have the stability and the resources to keep their language and culture alive for future generations.

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