The Cultural Importance of Language

Well, that shut him up

Language defines a culture, it is the basis for communication between peoples, the manner which we transmit love and emotion, and it can describe particular cultural practices, ones which may not easily translate into another language. Oral traditions of songs, stories and histories can be passed on through each generation and when that language becomes extinct an entire culture can be lost.

For many indigenous groups, their relationship with the natural world can offer profound insights into plants, animals and ecosystems with the potential to offer new medicines and remedies for all sorts of ailments. Many of these have not yet been documented and threats to indigenous language threaten possible benefits for humanity in our understanding of the environment and conservation.

What’s the situation in Mexico now?

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, a large number of early civilizations such as Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya and Aztec dominated Mexican culture and today many of their indigenous groups still maintain their original languages alongside Spanish. Before the conquest, it is estimated that there were 170 live languages. This dwindled to 100 by 1900 and is roughly at 60 today, with around 100 dialects spoken. Interestingly, the Spanish originally attempted to spread and elaborate a literary form of what is now termed “Classical Náhautl” as the lingua franca of the new territories before abandoning the policy. Spanish influence was interwoven into the indigenous roots of “New Spain”, creating a rich mix of Spanish and indigenous identities, and new challenges for the ancient cultures of the region.

Today Mexican culture is dominated by Spanish, but with an impressive 60 other recognized languages. The Mexican constitution protects the indigenous languages of Mexico and states that the indigenous peoples have the right to “preserve and enrich their languages.” Many of Mexico’s Spanish words borrow heavily from the numerous indigenous languages, examples including popote for straw from Náhuatl and aguacate, Spanish for avocado, which comes from the Náhuatl word ahuácatl… and actually means testicle.

While Mexico is seen by language authorities as “low risk” in terms of its indigenous languages, there are some which are under severe threat. These include Asunción Mixtepec, Comaltepec Chinantec, Ixcatec, and Sindihui Mixtec with less than 150 speakers each, and Tabasco Zoque with less than 40 surviving speakers of the language.

Why do languages die?

Imperialism brings the dominant languages of powerful groups which spread among smaller communities, leaving dead languages in their wake. Often language policies can be responsible for this, and also the prestige of being able to speak the imperial tongue.

A process has occurred throughout history as parents who speak a smaller language don’t pass it on to their young deeming it not important, or useless in helping them to find a job. This process has increased rapidly in recent years leading to a higher level of threat to our indigenous languages. Under the Aztec empire, Náhuatl dominated smaller religions, and of course since Spanish rule, Spanish has dominated all aspects of business and education for the most part in Mexico. In a recent conversation with the flower girl at the end of my road, she told me that she speaks fluent Náhuatl but her son won’t learn it. “I want to learn English!” he tells me proudly, perhaps a common theme developing in Mexico these days.

Pride in Language

Until the late 20th century, those who were able to speak both Spanish and their indigenous language often hid the language of their forefathers due to discrimination and mistreatment. There are sure signs that this is changing as communities show pride in the way that they speak, read and write in their native language. This can been seen through the efforts of those at The Intercultural University of Chiapas in San Cristobal in the south of Mexico who teach in the indigenous languages of the region, opening doors for students to begin working as translators and bilingual educators for their compatriots.

Whilst progress is being made, we don’t know what will happen in the 21st century. It is almost certain that part of Mexico’s linguistic heritage will almost certainly disappear, as younger people refuse to learn the language of their forefathers and would rather adopt English, French or even Mandarin. Language revitalization projects will need to push for a bilingual educational system in Mexico and to promote the cultural importance of saving these ailing languages through community based programmes. Hopefully many communities will learn how to find a balance of being able to participate fully in the life of the nation through Spanish while still maintaining their ancient language and customs.

To find out more:

Learn some of the Mixtec language: http://mixtec.nativeweb.org/

A virtual museum of the indigenous languages of Mexico: http://www.sil.org/mexico/museo/0i-Index.htm

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