Disappearing Mayan Languages

by Diana Pastor

My best friend, who came to Xela from Minnesota over a year ago, is currently learning the Ixil language. Maybe he never thought that, in learning a Mayan language, he would be making a small contribution to the preservation and dissemination of this language, which has survived only thanks to population growth.

Along with Ixil, several Mayan languages ??in Guatemala are preserved due to growing population. But these cases are sadly rare. Four languages ??specifically, two of them in the department of Peten, (the Mopan, with 400 speakers and Itza with less than 50), have seriously declined over time. Another two (not Mayan) are also almost lost: the Garifuna, with about 200 speakers in Izabal and Xinca in Santa Rosa (which is believed to have roots Quechua), with only 18 registered speakers.

Other languages have been expanding in recent years – Mam, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel and Quiché are spoken in several departments and the latter is the majority indigenous language in the country, with nearly one million speakers. The decline in indigenous languages can be credited to various factors. One is that, from the 60’s to the 90’s, many indigenous people who migrated to the capital in search of work did not teach their mother tongue to their children. Unfortunately, I was one such child, and like many, my linguistic heritage culture was a great loss. The beginnings of the loss did not start with me but with my parents, because when they went to school they were required to learn Spanish, even though they did not know a word of it. Sadly, the situation is still repeated in some communities today.

The reality is that the few interested in the rescue and preservation of languages ??in Guatemala have struggled against a national system which still refuses to consider bilingual services as unnecessary, contending that the official language is Spanish. Like it or not, there are still 24 languages ??in existence, with small or large number of speakers. Apart from the ones already mentioned, the others are Achi in Baja Verapaz, El Poqomam in Alta Verapaz, , Alta Verapaz and Quiche, the Akateko, Awakateko, Chuj, Chalchiteko, Popti, Qanjobal and Tektiteko in Huehuetenango, Chorti, in Chiquimula, and Uspanteko Sakapulteko in Quiché, the Sipakapense in San Marcos, Solola and Tzutujil in Suchitepequez and Uspanteko in Alta Verapaz.

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