Posted by: Paula Delgado-Kling | July 26, 2011

Colombia’s Indigenous Languages Disappearing

In the 1500s, Spanish explorers reported that native peoples in Colombia spoke at least 300 distinct languages, among them Uitoto, Barasana, Wayuu, and Nasa. Today, Colombia ranks fourth in the world in the number of spoken indigenous languages, after Brazil, Mexico and Peru. Mountains and jungles, and lack of roads, have permitted some of these languages to survive.

See a list of indigenous languages spoken in Colombia here.

Nowdays, there are 60 indigenous languages spoken in Colombia. Sadly, only three are spoken by more than 50,000 people. About 30 are in danger of disappearing altogether, Daniel Aguirre, who heads the Center for the Study of Aboriginal Languages at the University of the Andes in Bogota, told the Global Post.

Aguirre estimates that one indigenous language in Colombia disappears every two years. Last February, the Ministry of Culture reported that five native languages in Colombia, Tinigua, Tonuya, Carijona, Totoro, and Pisamira, are “nearly extinct because they have almost no speakers.” Each of these languages has fewer than 60 living speakers, and Tinigua has only one. Another nineteen are in “serious danger” of disappearing.

Indigenous youths find speaking Spanish helps them move up financially in the world. Many more have been displaced from their ancestral lands by the violence.

The government’s Program for the Protection of Ethnolinguistic Diversity, in conjunction with Law 1381 of 2010, is an attempt to protect and preserve indigenous language and culture.

In the summer of 2000, I traveled to Ecuador’s El Oriente region to learn Quechua and to spend time with some of today’s remaining indigenous. However, fear of the FARC camping nearby prompted me to come home early.


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