Did you know that Latin America is one of the most linguistically diverse continents? Whenever people think about Central and South America, the first language that comes to mind is Spanish, then Portuguese. However, so many other languages and dialects have been around for centuries and are still spoken to this day.
If you love to know about different cultures and languages, sit back and enjoy learning about the most captivating foreign and native indigenous spoken languages in Latin America.
So today, rather than vocabulary, you will get fascinating cultural insight to set you into a broader understanding of Latin America and its beautiful languages.
Remember, if you enjoy this blog and are keen on learning Spanish, consider Ling as your best option.
In Latin America, there are over 448 languages, many unclassified. There are 37 language families from indigenous roots spoken across the continent and are co-official languages of Hispanic countries.
Latin America, Hispanic, South America. These are different terms that may seem confusing to people who are not yet familiar. Before learning about the languages people speak across this continent, let me quickly explain the difference between these terms, as you will see in the article.
Latin America refers to the region of countries in the Americas that speak Romance languages. These languages are derived from Latin, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French. So in a map of Latin America, you will notice that Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Falklands, are omitted. That is because those countries do not speak languages of Latin origins.
Hispanic is widely used to refer to countries where the Spanish language predominates. You can also use the word to refer to a culture or people who speak Spanish.
South America is part of The Americas continent. As its name suggests, it is the South part of the continent. Its countries are Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Then there is North America which compromises Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Other countries from the continent are usually considered North or Central America, such as Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean countries.
Now that you have learned these basics, let's dive into the languages spoken explicitly in the Latin American region.
Spanish is a Romance language that came to Latin America from Spain during the colonial era. It is a widely spoken language in Latin America, except in Brazil and several other countries like Guyana and Suriname. More than 60% of people in the Latin American region speak Spanish as their first language.
The countries where you should expect people to speak to you in Spanish are Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.
In addition, it is the second most spoken language in the world. In fact, according to The Cervantes Institute, there has been a significant increase in worldwide Spanish learners in the last 30 years.
Like the Spanish settlements in some regions of the continent, the Portuguese also conquered a vast part of Brazil and a small part of Venezuela and Uruguay. This part of the continent is known as Portuguese America.
Around 206 million people speak Portuguese on the continent, most of them in Brazil, the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese as an official language.
The good thing is, we do manage to understand each other, at least when reading, as Spanish and Portuguese are very similar.
From this point, we will cover the indigenous languages. I will begin with Quechua as it is the closest to what I am familiar with regarding indigenous languages.
At least 8 million people speak Quechua in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and northern Chile and Argentina. The Inka language, also known as 'Runa Simi' in Quechuan, is one of the most widespread languages in the South American continent.
In fact, many people use Quechua/Quichua words in their daily conversations mixed with Spanish, even if they don't speak Quechua.
This language originated in Peru, extending itself to other Andean regions. We generally associate this language with the Andean areas since it is where it predominates the most, but it also extends to Amazonian territories. Several tribes in the Amazon speak their own Quechuan dialect.
Speaking of dialects, Quechua is a fascinating language. Due to the various dialects on the continent, Quechua-speaking people in Ecuador cannot understand Quechua-speaking people from Peru and vice versa.
You may get confused whenever you hear people referring to Quechuan languages with different names in this territory. For example, in Peru and Bolivia, some refer to the language as Quechua, written as Qhichwa, Qhiswa, or Qichwa. In Ecuador, Colombia, and the northern part of Argentina, it is called Quichua, written as Kichwa.
And finally, you will even hear individuals refer to it by its dialect name, such as 'cuzco collao,' 'inga,' or 'ingano.'
The Guaraní language is spoken mainly in Paraguay, as an official language, in addition to Spanish. Garanís speakers can also be found in other surrounding regions, such as Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.
Also known as 'Tupian,' it is a native indigenous language spoken by at least 5 million Garanís people on the South American continent.
2.5 million people speak the Aimara or Aymara language in Peru and Bolivia, where it is a co-official language along with Spanish. In addition, a few Aymara communities can be found in some areas of Chile and Argentina.
According to its history, this language originated in the Peruvian Andes and traveled to the south, even reaching Argentina. Today, the smaller Aymara communities live together with the Quechuas.
According to a UNESCO statement, this language has been listed as a World Heritage Site to prevent it from being forgotten among indigenous communities. Over the years, the indigenous language was diminishing as more people adopted Quechua or Spanish. However, it is still a source of pride for the natives.
An interesting fact to know is that several words in the Aymara language are similar to the Quechua language. For now, linguists do not know which language of origin lent these words to the other language.
Likewise, in Aymara and Quechua, there are words borrowed from Spanish that communities have adopted to improve communication with those who speak only Spanish.
An example in the case of the Aymara language would be 'sapatu' (Spanish: Zapato/English: Shoe). See the similarity in 'sapatu' and 'zapato'? Most of these kinds of words exist because the original Aymara never had these words. So they took them from Spanish or other languages.
From the Andes to the South, a vast Chilean territory is home to Mapuche communities, where 500,000 people speak Mapudungun or Mapuche.
Currently, the Mapuche community is the largest indigenous group in the country. A small community can also be found in the provinces of Neuquén, Chubut, Neuquén, and Río Negro in Argentina.
However, only 2 Chilean provinces consider this language official, along with Spanish. These provinces are Galvarino and Padre de las Casas in the country's south.
An interesting fact about these communities is that the Spanish settlers began to know them as 'Araucanos.' 'Araucanos' is a term born from the Quechua term 'Auka,' which reminded them of the 'Inkas'
Ashaninka belongs o the Aruak (or Arawak) linguistic family. 50.000 natives speak it.
Asháninka or Asháninca are Indigenous tribes natives of the Peruvian Amazon who have lived there for 5000 years. Some communities are also found in Acre, Brazil, after migrating from Peru. These native tribes are, in fact, one of the largest in South America.
A beautiful and interesting fact about these tribes is that they present cultural and linguistic homogeneity, even though they are extended through diverse territories of the vast Amazon with various dialects.
These tribes have fought against the exploitation of lumber. They have experienced repression and have even endured invasions since the Inca era. In addition, it is impossible not to admire how they have protected the Earth. For them, everything around us is alive and should be well protected.
Guajiro (Venezuela and Colombia)
Páez - Paez (Colombia)
Mayan (Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras)
English (Around The continent by immigrants or people who learned as a second language)
Arabic (Around Latin America)
German (Brazil and Chile)
As you just learned, in Latin America, there is much more than Spanish and Portuguese. The ancient cultures of this region are impressive. Learning about their customs and languages can open your mind when traveling to a Latin American country. During your journey, you can see the incredible diversity of our people and all that it has to offer.
In time, you will be able to learn some indigenous languages of Latin America. And I advise you to do it! But first, you must start with the most widely spoken language in this region: Spanish!
If you plan to travel through this region, mainly through Hispanic countries, start with the most basic: learn the most necessary words for tourists. Then learn how to introduce yourself to the natives, and know some phrases to give compliments to your friends you meet on your trip.
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