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The 2010 Census

Mexico’s Census agency is the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) — known to Americans as the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Every ten years, INEGI publishes a census showing various population statistics for all residents living in Mexico.

When the results of the 2010 Mexican Census are compared to the 2000 Censo and 2005 Conteo (Count), we can see a significant increase in the number of Mexicans 5 years of age and older who speak indigenous languages. But while the overall numbers rose in many states, the percentage of indigenous speakers in individual states actually dropped in many parts of Mexico.

Speakers of Indigenous Languages

The overall number of indigenous speakers in Mexico dropped from 6,044,547 to 6,011,202 between 2000 and 2005, but increased to 6,695,228 in 2010.   At the same time, the percentage of indigenous speakers dropped from 7.2% to 6.7% between 2000 and 2005 and remained at 6.7% in 2010.

It is important to point out that the criteria in this tally represents people who speak  indigenous languages and that the number of Mexicans who consider themselves to be indigenous – through culture, tradition, spirit, genetics and other factors –was measured in a separate census question, not discussed in this study.

Monolingual Speakers of Indigenous Languages

In 2000, there were 1,002,236 persons five years of age and older who spoke an indigenous language, but did not speak Spanish (i.e., they were monolingual). This segment of the population represented 16.6% of all indigenous language speakers. In the 2010 census, the number of monolingual indigenous speakers dropped to 980,894, or 14.7% of the indigenous speaking population. Bilingualism (speaking both Spanish and an indigenous language) usually results from education through schooling, literacy campaigns, migration to other states, and extended social interaction with mestizo populations (mixed race individuals).

Most Spoken Languages

As of the 2010 census, Náhuatl remains the most widely spoken language in Mexico with 1,544,968 persons five years of age and older speaking that tongue. Náhuatl speakers, in fact, represented 23.08% of the indigenous speakers 5 and older in the Mexican Republic, up from 22.89% in the 2005 census count. Data on the most commonly spoken languages in Mexico at the time of the 2010 census are illustrated in the following table:

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Speakers of the top four indigenous languages in Mexico — Náhuatl, Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec — represent nearly one-half (48.6%) of all indigenous speakers within the Mexican Republic. Náhuatl was the language of the Aztecs and, during Mexico’s colonial period, it was the de facto lingua franca (after Spanish) in many parts of Mexico.

In the preceding chart, the fifth column lists the percentage of persons in each language group who are monolingual. The Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol and Tlapaneco languages appeared to have the highest rates of monolingualism in 2010. Three of the four most commonly spoken languages — Náhuatl, Maya and Zapotec — had very low levels of monolingualism: 10.3%, 6.5% and 8.8%, respectively.

States with Large Populations of Indigenous Speakers

The following table lists the Mexican states with the largest populations of indigenous language speakers. It can readily be seen that Oaxaca and Chiapas, together, had 34.4% of all the indigenous speakers in the country. Veracruz and Puebla had another 18.6% of the indigenous speakers in the republic.

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It can be observed that the six states with the largest number of indigenous speakers in Mexico — Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla, Yucatán and Guerrero — contained almost seven in ten (67.8%) of Mexico’s entire indigenous speaking population. But all of these states had varying levels of monolingualism. Yucatán — a state with a large Mayan population — had a surprisingly low level of monolingualism.

Monolingualism in the Mexican States

In the following table, the states with the largest percentage of monolingual speakers of indigenous languages 5 years of age and older in the 2010 census are shown. As can be seen in the third column, almost one-third (32.5%) of the Chiapas indigenous language speakers were monolingual. 

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Only eight Mexican states — Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Durango, Nayarit, Hidalgo, Chihuahua and Veracruz — had monolingual rates that exceeded 10% of each state’s indigenous language speaking population.

Monolingual Languages in the Mexican Republic

In the 2010 census, 23 indigenous languages in the Mexican Republic had monolingual rates of 10% or more. The following table shows the 13 languages that had monolingual rates of 19% or more.

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As noted in the preceding table, Amuzgo de Guerrero is the indigenous language with the largest percent of monolingual speakers, but Amuzgo also has a presence in Oaxaca and other states, where its monolingual rate is still considerable, but much less than in Guerrero.  Tzeltal and Tzotzil — both Mayan languages spoken in Chiapas — also have relatively high rates of monolingualism, while Tlapaneco — spoken primarily in Guerrero — has a monolingual rate of 28.1% ranking it fourth.

Guerrero’s Tlapanecos — also known as the Me’phaa — were one of the few tribal groups who held out against the Aztec Empire in an independent enclave known as Yopitzinco. They were conquered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century but have managed to maintain their language and culture in the centuries since then. Today, their high level of monolingualism is a tribute to their determination to preserve their culture in their isolated mountain habitats.

Monolingualism in Northern Mexico

Higher rates of monolingualism among the central and southern states are expected, considering the large indigenous populations that inhabit some parts of those states. However, the fact that several northern and western states such as Durango, Nayarit, Chihuahua and Jalisco have modest rates of monolingualism is of special interest. In the following table, the languages in those four states that have significant rates of monolingualism are shown:

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As indicated in the preceding chart, some of the Tarahumara of Chihuahua and Tepehuán of Durango have managed to isolate themselves enough to maintain their respective cultures and languages. The Huicholes have managed to create the same kind of conditions in both Jalisco and Nayarit. In addition, the Cora people of Nayarit have succeeded in preserving their own language, and more than one-quarter of Cora speakers 5 years of age and older (28.3%) in that state were still monolingual speakers as of 2010.

The Future for Monolingual Speakers

The movement of indigenous peoples from their places of origin to other parts of Mexico — especially urban areas — will continue to play some role in the continued decline of most of Mexico’s indigenous languages.  As the number of indigenous language speakers decline, so, too, will the number of monolingual speakers.

In a certain sense, one can see monolingual speakers as representing the purest segment of the original indigenous language and culture, seemingly untouched by Mexican and Spanish mainstream culture. The reasons for the decline in the rate of monolingualism include the following:

  1. Spanish is the official language of Mexico. Therefore the need to interact in the commercial field and participate in the dynamics of present-day society requires a person to be bilingual. In short, there are multiple social pressures that would persuade a monolingual speaker to become bilingual.
  2. For decades, anti-literacy campaigns by the Mexican Government discouraged speaking of indigenous languages in many areas of the country.
  3. The access to work sources and medical services requires some persons — especially men — to communicate with people in Spanish.
  4. For migrants who move to other states within the Mexican Republic (such as Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Triques), there is substantial pressure — especially on the younger generations — to learn Spanish and, in some cases, the younger generation may completely discard the ancestral language. That pressure in urban areas is even greater.

On the other hand, the distance of an ethnic group from the center of power (capitals of municipios) and a strong sense of pride and cultural identity among some indigenous groups will ensure the survival of many of the languages and their monolingual speakers well into the future.

Copyright © 2019 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.

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