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As Native Tongues Dwindle Worldwide, Indigenous Languages in Mexico Revive and Thrive

Lynn Sherr and Megan Thompson - Worldfocus
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January 27, 2013

About half the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today may disappear by the end of this century. The world loses another language approximately every two weeks.

In the state of Chiapas, Mexico, about 25 percent of people don't speak any Spanish. Rather, they speak a host of indigenous languages, many of which originated in ancient Mayan times. Some organizations, like the Intercultural University of Chiapas school in San Cristobal, work to keep these dying languages alive by teaching them to the next generation.

Worldfocus special correspondent Lynn Sherr and producer Megan Thompson highlight Mexico's attempt to preserve the past by speaking ancient languages in the present tense.

There are more than 600 indigenous languages still in use across Latin America, though hundreds more have disappeared over the last several centuries and still more face imminent extinction. Below are a few examples of endangered languages across Central and South America.

Achuar: Used by communities living near the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador and Peru, Achuar is a potentially endangered language spoken by a few thousand people. Listen to a ceremonial visiting conversation: Click

Iquito: Iquito is a highly endangered language spoken in parts of Peru. Many of its native speakers died of malaria in the 1990s and there are only 22-26 elderly speakers still alive. Listen to the story of a man who imitates the call of a frog: Click

Kawésqar: A language spoken primarily in Chile, Kawésqar is spoken by less than 100 people, many of whom are bilingual and speak Spanish. Listen to a love song: Click

Pipil: The Pipil are an indigenous group of El Salvador. The language was outlawed in the 1930s and only a handful of people speak it today. Listen to a guitar song: Click

Rama: Native to Nicaragua, there are only about 24 people who speak Rama left. Listen to the song “Our Oyster Shells”: Click

Yanomami: The Yanomami are a large indigenous tribe living mostly in Brazil. With about 11,000 speakers, the language is considered partially endangered. Listen to Yanomami women sing: Click

For more on disappearing languages, see The National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project.

Learn about other endangered languages across Latin America and listen to audio samples courtesy of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America.

Information courtesy of the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages.

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