Culture, Guatemala

Ten Guatemalan languages on the verge of extinction

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Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, but K’iche’, one of the many native Mayan tongues, is the second most commonly spoken language in the country. Guatemala is a country of many diverse languages and dialects, some of them severely endangered. One of RWI’s basic tenets is cultural awareness, and so our tutors, who are also local community members, teach in both K’iche’ and Spanish to accommodate both groups as much as possible.

Other organizations like Enlace Quiche have been working to teach more children the native languages and even create new K’iche’ words for technological words that never existed before. Several universities in the U.S. also teach K’iche’ as part of their Latin American studies or linguistics programs, so awareness of the K’iche’ language is actually spreading like never before.

Other native Latin American languages, and thousands of other languages the world over, have not been so lucky. According to Google, there are over 3,000 languages around the world that are near extinction. Languages are constantly evolving and as the world becomes more globalized, young people turn to the more common languages, English, Spanish, and Chinese. Unfortunately, this means that many of the 7,000 languages in the world are at risk of disappearing thanks to globalization and discrimination against indigenous groups.

In an effort to prevent them from being completely lost and forgotten, Google has launched The Endangered Languages Project to serve as a knowledge base to help revitalize these languages. The website is intended to help people learn more about endangered languages, and help document languages that are on the verge of extinction. Like Enlace Quiche, Google thinks that technology can help preserve these languages instead of endangering them, through recordings and facilitating language learning all over the world.

The project is the result of a diverse group of organizations and scholars forming the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity to “give those interested in preserving languages a place to store and access research, share advice and build collaborations.” Although Google developed and launched the website, the true leaders of the project will the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Institute for Language Information and Technology.

According to the Endangered Languages website, there are 10 Guatemalan languages that are endangered, not including five others along the Mexico-Guatemala border. Some are considered dialects of K’iche’ and include:

  1. Itzaj
  2. Tz’utujil
  3. Ch’orti’
  4. Guazacapan Xinka
  5. Achi’
  6. Uspanteko
  7. Sakapulteko
  8. Awakateko
  9. Q’anjob’al
  10. Sipakapa

Find out more about them at the site by selecting the languages from the language map. Itzaj is the most endangered languages on the verge of extinction with only 12 known native speakers.

Unfortunately, language extinction is representative of the larger loss of cultural heritage, knowledge, and at times entire cultural groups. Often indigenous groups are forbidden by governments from speaking their native languages, as was the case in Guatemala during the civil war, or they have few legal and political rights to protect their lands and human rights. The Google Endangered Language Project has the potential to raise awareness about endangered groups like never before. So explore some languages you may never have heard of before and take a moment to appreciate the amazing cultural diversity that we all share.

Find out more about preserving languages from organizations like Enlace Quiche or Cultural Survival.

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