When you think of Guatemala, a small Central American nation just to the south of Mexico, you probably imagine a country of Spanish speakers. While Spanish is indeed the country’s primary tongue, there are actually 25 languages spoken among the population of 16.86 million. This linguistic diversity stems from the country’s vast number of ethnic groups and indigenous communities.
Of the 25 languages spoken in Guatemala, 22 are Mayan, meaning their speakers share an ethnic and cultural background. K’iche’ is the most widely spoken Mayan language with about 1 million native speakers. Some dialects are confined to a few thousand speakers in small communities.
Xinca, spoken by the ethnic group of the same name, is another indigenous language that’s completely separate from the various Mayan dialects. The community’s status as a non-Mayan indigenous group makes it an outlier in Guatemala’s diverse social fabric.
Garífuna, meanwhile, is the language of the Caribbean community on the country’s small Atlantic coast. The Garífuna people, currently living in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, are the descendants of escaped slaves and indigenous Caribs who were once living on the island of St. Vincent. Forced onto the mainland of Central America by the British, they’ve maintained their unique language for over 200 years. Garífuna stems largely from the indigenous Arawak but contains a smattering of African, French, and Creole words.
As Guatemalans strive for opportunities in an increasingly globalized world, many are learning Spanish and even English in addition to their mother tongues. While a certain linguistic uniformity can increase a sense of unity, it also threatens the integrity and existence of indigenous languages. Activists and community leaders across the country, from the highlands of the Maya to the coastal communities of the Garífuna, are working hard to keep their languages and their traditions intact.