The facts you need to know about languages in Latin America
This month we’ll be taking an in-depth look at languages used across Latin America. With an estimated population of 590 million people, we’re going to explore the languages used and look at the changing trends. The key focus of this article will be the major languages used and their geographical spread.
Latin America refers to all the countries that once belonged to the empires of Spain and Portugal during the discovery of the American continents and as such can be characterised by speaking languages classified as romance languages, those derived from Latin.
Taking the term in its strict sense, results in 20 countries to be considered Latin American:
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
Spanish and Portuguese are the predominant languages of Latin America. Spanish is spoken as a first language by about 60% of the population, Portuguese is spoken by about 34% of the population and about 6% of the population make up a large variety of different languages.
Linguistic map of Latin America
Spanish = green
Portuguese = orange
French = blue
Spanish is the official language of most of the countries on the Latin American mainland, as well as in Cuba, Puerto Rico (where it is co-official with English), and the Dominican Republic. The Spanish spoken in Latin America is not the same as the Spanish spoken in Spain. A lack of connection with Spain and the huge influence the native speakers had on the language in Latin America has impacted it to make two different dialects. However the Spanish spoken in Latin America and Spain is not so different that they would have difficulty understanding each other.
Portuguese is spoken throughout Latin America, but there is only one country where it is recognised as the official language, Brazil. Although Portuguese is the official language of only one country, Brazil is the largest and most populous country of Latin America.
Native American Languages
Native American languages are widely spoken in Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, Paraguay and Mexico, and to a lesser degree, in Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile amongst other countries. Mexico is possible the only country that contains a wider variety of indigenous languages than any Latin American country, but the most spoken language is Nahuatl.
In Peru, Quechua is an official language, alongside Spanish and any other indigenous language in the areas where they predominate. In Ecuador, while holding no official status, the closely related Quichua is a recognised language of the indigenous people under the country’s constitution; however, it is only spoken by a few groups in the country’s highlands. In Bolivia, Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní hold official status alongside Spanish. Guaraní, along with Spanish, is an official language of Paraguay, and is spoken by a majority of the population (who are, for the most part, bilingual), and it is co-official with Spanish in the Argentine province of Corrientes. In Nicaragua, Spanish is the official language, but on the country’s Caribbean coast English and indigenous languages such as Miskito, Sumo, and Rama also hold official status. Colombia recognises all indigenous languages spoken within its territory as official, though fewer than 1% of its population are native speakers of these languages.
French is the primary language of Haiti and French Guyana. English is not a primary language of any Latin American nation but is widely spoken in areas that are popular tourist destinations.
Dutch is the official language in Suriname, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles. As Dutch is a Germanic language and these were not part of the Spanish or Portuguese empires, these territories are not technically considered part of Latin America.
I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to the languages of Latin America. We’ll be continuing our theme of languages in Latin America with our next article taking a closer look at how the languages of Spain and Portugal were exported to Latin America and the differences that have evolved in the languages when compared with their European counterparts.