Most Commonly Spoken Languages in Latin America (Other than Spanish)
Nearly 400 million people speak Spanish in Latin America, with 40 million more Spanish-speakers in the United States. But, what about the “other” languages in Latin America?
Everyone knows about the other “big one”: Portuguese. With over 200 million Brazilians speaking the language, it’s safe to say that Portuguese is in very good health.
But still, what about the others? Because there are over 560 languages spoken in the region, according to one report by the World Bank. So, which languages are we talking about? Where are they? And, how do they affect the societies in which they are spoken?
We’ll separate these languages into two main categories: “foreign” and indigenous languages, and then analyze each one of them separately.
I’m using the label “foreign” as a convenient way to lump together such a widely diverse group of languages. Their common bond is that they were not native to Central or South America, but eventually became an integral part of it. At least one million people speak one of the following languages in Latin America: English, German, Italian and Arabic. Another half million people speak Chinese and Ukrainian (with Japanese lagging a little behind), and a quarter of a million speak French as well as Dutch.
Let’s focus on the languages with more than one million speakers in Latin America:
First, it’s important to be clear that Latin America is not equal to “every country south of the Texas border.” The term “Latin” or “Latino” refers to everything that comes from or belongs to the cultures of the romance languages. These cultures come from those countries where the Latin language was once spoken, namely Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, and Romania.
Why is this important at all? Well, because even when some countries in the Americas list English as their official language, such as Guyana or Trinidad and Tobago, strictly speaking—despite their location on a map—they are not part of Latin America.
Even considering this, there are over 5 million English speakers living in Latin America. For instance in Mexico, the ex-pat community is growing fast with more than one million Americans (and many Canadian snowbirds!) living in the country these days. Cities like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cabo San Lucas, are basically bilingual towns with many services delivered both in Spanish and English.
Most of the 2 million German speakers in Latin America live in Brazil, where several waves of German immigration took place. The impact of the German language in Brazil is not common knowledge, but there are towns in the South American giant that look exactly like German towns and others where learning German is mandatory in schools.
Besides Spanish and Portuguese, no other language in Latin America has had a bigger influence in the region than Italian. But that influence has been mostly confined to Argentina.
With over 1.5 million Italian speakers in the country, the impact Italians have had on Argentinian culture is undeniable. Even the characteristic Argentinian accent has a similar cadence to Italian. Some neighborhoods in Buenos Aires are “Little Italies,” where everything sounds Italian—from the food to the surnames and everything in between.
Latin America has been the recipient of large Arab immigration waves, particularly from Lebanon and Syria. The history of Arabs in Latin America is filled with presidents like Carlos Menem in Argentina, big-name businessmen such as Carlos Slim in Mexico, and famous dishes like tacos al pastor that are a variation of the Turkish kebabs.
Interestingly, even though the Islamic Organization for Latin America estimates that around 6 million Muslims live in the region, the Arab language itself is spoken by no more than one million people.
Even though the actual number of indigenous languages in Latin America totals 560, some studies estimate that before Spanish colonization the continent had over 2,000 indigenous languages. Think about the huge cultural loss that means.
Let’s take a closer look at the most spoken indigenous languages in Latin America:
With an estimated number of 8 million speakers, Quechua is the most spoken indigenous language in Latin America. In Peru, it’s an official language alongside Spanish. This country has even launched a TV show in Quechua, and some cities have started to include it in their schools.
Mayan speakers total approximately 6 million, distributed between southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. However, there is no one Mayan language but many of them. Just in Guatemala, 22 different Mayan languages co-exist.
In Guatemala and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, a couple of initiatives have tried to preserve the Mayan languages, encouraging indigenous peoples to write in their native language.
Around 5 million people speak Guarani in Paraguay, where it is an official language on par with Spanish. The case of the Guarani language in Paraguay is an interesting one, as it’s probably the indigenous language most widely integrated into national life. Guarani is taught in schools throughout the country and seems to have “equal stature” in art and other cultural expressions.
Between Peru and Bolivia, there is an estimated number of 2.5 million Aymara speakers. Recently deposed Bolivian President, Evo Morales, is ethnically Aymaran. In Bolivia, the Aymara language shares the distinction of being an official language of the country with Spanish and other 30 indigenous languages.
An interesting fact of Aymara is that it has adopted the Latin alphabet, which has played an important role in its diffusion and preservation.
The language of the ancient Aztecs, Nahuatl is still the mother tongue of 2 million people in Central Mexico. The Nahuatl language has influenced many languages without anyone noticing. The words chocolate, tomato, and chili, to name just a few all come from Nahuatl.
In Mexico, several attempts to preserve and integrate Nahuatl into everyday life have been attempted. Nowadays, it’s even taught in some schools as a second language. However, it remains a relatively minor player in the country’s linguistic landscape.
Timoitase is a Nahuatl word that means “goodbye” in English and adiós in Spanish. Languages are beautiful cultural expressions that are worth learning. Perhaps you are not ready to learn Nahuatl, but how about Spanish? Sign up for a free class with one of our native Spanish-speaking teachers and discover the richness of this language.
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