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Languages in Guatemala: From Spanish to Mayan Languages

Languages in Guatemala are vast. Today we explore the different languages spoken:

Spanish Language in Guatemala

You may notice that Guatemalan Spanish does not always sound like the Spanish that’s spoken in other countries. An attractive feature of Guatemalan Spanish is that it’s a very clear version of the language. Guatemalans don’t lisp. Unlike many of their neighbours in Central America and the Carribean, Guatemalans don’t habitually drop letters from their words. In a sense, Guatemalan Spanish is a cleaner Spanish than the Spanish spoken in Spain.

Local community in Guatemala

Guatemalan Spanish is so clean partly because it is the maternal language of only a little more than half of Guatemala’s population. Everyone else in Guatemala speaks Spanish as a second language or not at all. Most of those people speak one of Guatemala’s 23 indigenous languages and 21 of those languages are Mayan.

Mayan Languages in Guatemala

The 21 Mayan languages of Guatemala range from millions of speakers to just a few thousand. The largest is K’iche. Between one and two million speak K’iche, making it the largest spoken Mayan language in Guatemala. Q’eqchi’, Mam, and Kachiquel are the other big Mayan languages in the country. They boast about half a million speakers each. Quetzaltenango is mostly split between speakers of K’iche and Mam. K’iche is a bit more common in the city itself, whereas Mam is more common in the surrounding areas.

Street in San Cristóbal de Las Casas

Inhabitants of the area that stretches from the eastern part of Lake Atitlan through to Guatemala City speak the language of Katchiquel. Q’eqchi covers a large area where Guatemala’s mountainous highlands descend into the jungle lowlands of El Peten in the northern part of the country.

Garifuna Language in Guatemala

It’s not all Mayan languages, either. Two of the indigenous languages in Guatemala – Garifuna and Xinca – come from elsewhere. Inhabitants of the Caribbean coast of Guatemala and other Central American countries speak Garifuna. It’s a bit of a mish-mash: although it shares some features with the languages spoken by indigenous peoples of South America, it also borrows heavily from Spanish, French, and English.

Xinca Language in Guatemala

Xinca is of uncertain origin, although it seems to have come from non Mayan peoples living south and east of contemporary Guatemala. Heavily endangered, there are now only a few hundred people who can speak it.

The Future of Indigenous Languages in Guatemala

Xinca isn’t the only indigenous language in Guatemala that’s under threat. While languages like K’iche and Q’echi’ remain robust, with millions or hundreds of thousands of speakers, others appear to be decline. Although it can be difficult to find reliable data about the prospects of Guatemala’s less-spoken indigenous languages, some of the evidence shows that the current generation of children growing up in the communities where those languages are traditionally spoken are not adapting them as readily as generations past.

Mayan elderly woman

If you come to Xela, however, you’ll still hear K’iche and Mam spoken in the streets. You’ll see plenty of people wearing native dress. And you might even pick up a word of two of one of those languages yourself. 


Find out more about travelling to Guatemala

Volunteering and cultural trips in the heart of Guatemala:

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