As a region, Latin America can be tricky to define. While many people think every country in this region speaks Spanish, not all of them have Spanish as an official tongue. Latin America also includes countries where Portuguese or indigenous languages have official status. Today, there are around 600 indigenous languages that exist in some form across the region. Significantly, the status of these indigenous languages can vary from living to endangered, with some declared officially extinct.
The numbers cited below only take into account living indigenous languages. That is, those that are still more or less widely spoken. And while we can’t list every last indigenous language used in every country, we can highlight the most well known and widely spoken in each. So let’s explore which 10 Latin American countries claim the most indigenous languages, and how many indigenous languages still survive. For this info, we’re mostly deferring to the language resource Ethnologue.
Let’s start with one of Latin America’s most populous countries. With 284, Mexico ranks top in terms of Latin American countries with the most surviving indigenous languages. The most spoken indigenous language in Mexico is Nahuatl, primarily in the states of Veracruz, Guerrero, Puebla and Durango. Yucatec Mayan takes second place, most widely used in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán. Other commonly spoken indigenous languages include Mixtec, Zapotec, Otomi, Totonac and Mazatec.
Heading down to South America, Brazil takes the second spot on our list. This mostly Portuguese-speaking country is home to 241 languages, 202 of them indigenous. Brazil is also known as the country with the most endangered indigenous languages. The most common indigenous language is Nheengatu, spoken primarily in Brazil’s north-west, specifically in the state of Amazonas. Other recognized indigenous languages actively spoken in Brazil include Guarani, Kaiwa, Tikuna, Kaingang, Xavante and Yanomami. But it’s been suggested that Brazil could fall several places down the list in just the next 10 years.
As the first South American country on our list with Spanish as an official language, Peru also boasts 91 indigenous languages. Quechua — one of the world’s most widely spoken indigenous languages, and the most spoken in Peru — has also been given official status alongside Spanish. More than 10 percent of Peru’s population speaks Quechua, primarily in the Andean region and the city of Cusco. It’s common in Peru to hear native speakers mixing Quechua and Spanish words together in conversation. Aymara is the second indigenous language to have been declared a national language, and it enjoys protected status under the Peruvian Constitution. This national language is spoken in the south of the country, particularly in the cities of Puno, Moquegua, Tacna and in the region around Lake Titicaca. Other indigenous languages on the rise associated with Peru include Ashaninka, spoken in the south, and Awajun, scattered around the north.
Out of Colombia’s 91 listed languages, 83 of them are considered indigenous, most of which are Amerindian. Guahibo is believed to be the most widely used indigenous language in northern Colombia. After Guahibo comes Embera, which is split between west-coast varieties and those in Colombia’s central-eastern regions.
39 out of Bolivia’s 47 listed languages are indigenous. The two most spoken indigenous languages in Bolivia are Quechua and Aymara. Quechua is used in and around the highlands forming Bolivia’s western region, especially in the Potosí region. Aymara can be heard in central-western Bolivia around the regions of La Paz, Oruro, and along the border between Bolivia and Peru. All told, about a third of the population speaks an indigenous language. Other honorable mentions go to the Chiquitano indigenous languages spoken in central Bolivia and the Guarani languages scattered around the southeast.
Today, Venezuela has 37 indigenous languages out of a total of 49. Wayuu is the most prevalent indigenous language in Venezuela, with approximately 294,000 speakers, and is primarily spoken in the northwestern states of Mérida, Trujillo and Zulia. Wayuu is also spoken a little in Venezuela’s south-east. In addition to Wayuu, Warao and Penom are also spoken. Warao can be heard in Venezuela’s three adjoining north-eastern states of Delta Amacuro, Monagas and Sucre, with 32,400 speakers reported during the last census in 2012. Meanwhile, Penom is spoken in what is famously Venezuela’s largest and wealthiest state, Bolívar, in the country’s southeast corner.
Guatemala has 25 surviving indigenous languages, of which 22 are Mayan — or rather varieties of spoken Mayan languages. K’iche is the most commonly used Mayan language in central Guatemala, with a total of 1,050,000 registered speakers according to the 2019 census. It was also reported that Q’eqchi is the second most -poken Mayan (and overall indigenous) language in the north, with 1,130,000 total speakers. Combined, these two Mayan languages represent the majority of indigenous language speakers in the country.
First, it’s important to note that 97 percent of Ecuador’s population speaks Spanish, predominantly one of the three regional variations of Amazonic, Andean and Equatorial Coastal. Despite that, there’s still room for indigenous languages to leave their mark. Quichua, a local language derived from Quechua, is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Andes, with, according to Ethnologue, 408,000 documented users at the last count in 2012. Alongside Quichua, Shuar is a prominent indigenous language associated with Ecuador, spoken primarily in the southeastern region. According to the last count in 2012, Ecuador’s Shuar speakers numbered 42,000 recorded users. Including Quichua and Shuar, Ecuador has 21 surviving indigenous languages within its borders.
If there’s one country where indigenous languages enjoy more prominence than Spanish, it’s Paraguay. Guarani boasts pride of place in this nation as the indigenous language with official status alongside Spanish. Interestingly, Paraguay is known as one of the only Latin American countries where the most non-indigenous people learn and use an indigenous language. In fact, almost 70 percent of Paraguay’s population knows Guarani, including bilingual speakers. In total, Paraguay lists 19 active indigenous languages, including Guarani.
Argentina’s most widely spoken languages are Spanish, as well as immigrant languages such as Italian and Arabic. Although these international languages predominate in Argentina, some indigenous languages are also spoken, each claiming a few hundred thousand speakers. Guarani, Quechua from southern Bolivia, and Mapudungun are the main indigenous languages among the 14 listed for Argentina, and they can be heard in the country’s northeast as well as in the city of Mendoza.