The official language of Guatemala is Spanish, and 93% of the population speaks it with varying levels of fluency. In addition to Spanish, 24 other languages are spoken, 22 of them Amerindian languages spoken by Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan peoples. The remaining two are Xinka, a non-Mayan indigenous language, and Garífuna, the language of the Black Caribs of the eastern coast. Many of these languages have significant populations of native speakers and documented, standardized grammar. Others have gradually declined over the years and now risk disappearing without serious efforts to preserve them. In predominately indigenous regions, the elderly speak little to no Spanish and children only learn Spanish at school, not at home. A general rule of thumb is that the more rural the village, the more likely that Spanish takes a back seat to the local indigenous language. In the Ixil town of Chajul, Quiché, for example, hearing Spanish on the street is very rare. Just next door in more populous Nebaj, Spanish and Ixil are used roughly equally. Many Mayan languages are primarily oral; few speakers are able to read or write them, but this is gradually changing as increased efforts are made to preserve indigenous heritage. While a select few of the Mayan languages (K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, for instance) are similar enough for some native speakers to understand each other, the majority are entirely distinct.
Despite the healthy indigenous population in Guatemala, ethnic divisions among groups have led to the marginalization of many Mayan languages. As Spanish is emphasized, especially in schools, some transitional languages are heading toward extinction, and a few are doomed to vanish. Because of Guatemala’s diverse linguistic make-up and the tendency of certain indigenous communities to be located in close proximity to another, it is helpful for indigenous peoples to be fluent in two or more languages in addition to Spanish. It is very uncommon, but not unheard of, for Spanish-speaking ladinos to make an effort to learn any indigenous language. The breakdown of the most common indigenous languages and their respective numbers of speakers is as follows:
Some of the rarer indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala include Akateko, Awakateko, Chalchiteko, Ch’orti’, Chuj, Garífuna, Itzá, Jakalteko/Popti’, Mopán, Poqomam, Sakapulteko, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Usptanteko, and Xinka. Be sure to check out the guide for a complete Spanish Language Reference guide as well as some common words and phrases in several of the more common Mayan languages!
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