Multilingualism in Latin America

We all know that the conquest of Latin America was a disaster for its indigenous peoples and languages. Between war, slavery, and disease, the native population was reduced, absorbed, or eliminated in much of Latin America. At the same time, the native languages gave way to Spanish.

Argentina is an extreme example of this tragic pattern. According to the CIA World Factbook, only 3% of Argentina’s population is indigenous or mestizo (mixed). Mapudungun and Quechua are still spoken, but less than Spanish, Italian, English, German, and even French.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru are at the other end of the demographic and linguistic spectrum. Their populations are largely indigenous or mestizo, and their indigenous languages are still widely spoken, and in many cases recognized as co-official with Spanish. I’ve put together a summary table (below) using data from the CIA Factbook and, where indicated, the U.S. Department of State.

Latin American countries with widely spoken indigenous languages
(Source: CIA Factbook unless otherwise indicated)



*indicates data from U.S. Dept. of State

Indigenous languages

Linguistic status

Official status

Bolivia 85% indigenous or mestizo Only 60.7% of the population speaks Spanish. Quechua and Aymara are co-official with Spanish.
Ecuador 90% indigenous or mestizo* Quichua and Shuar are widely spoken. Spanish is the only official language.
Guatemala Majority indigenous or mestizo* Only 60% of the population speaks Spanish. 23 indigenous languages are co-official with Spanish.
Paraguay 95% mestizo Most of the population is bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní. Guaraní is co-official with Spanish.
Perú 82% indigenous or mestizo 15% of the population speaks Quechua, Aymara, or another indigenous language. Quechua is co-official with Spanish.

2 thoughts on “Multilingualism in Latin America

  1. Susana Molica Nardo Kearney

    Siete idiomas se hablan en España y son todos “españoles”. “Spanish” does not refer to any linguistic reality, it’s an adjetive used to denied identity since the planting of geopolitical colonial cultures opposed to free linguistic cultures. In Spain, by law, the official language is CASTELLANO, Castilian in Engish-Hence Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra a nd”El Quijote de La Mancha”.
    There are various Castilians. Examples Castilian from river Plate, Castilian from the Pacific, castilian from Caribe, castilian from USA.
    Should you speak to an educated spaniard person, and ask her/his about the name of his/her language, they would reply: Castellano. So could you please explain what it is mantein the wrong linguistic name in South America, Caribe and North America for that language? What the impediment to recognize something that breaks stereotypes and may teach some people, at least the proper name of their linguistic identity?


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