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Speaking the Language

Mexico - Speaking the Language

On a federal level, there is no official language in Mexico though Spanish is recognized as the country’s national language. This language is spoken fluently by more than 110 million Mexicans and most of the residents are monolingual. Expats travelling to Mexico are therefore advised to learn at least a few basic Spanish phrases (greetings, introductions, directions, courtesy words, etc.) before arriving in the country. People who do not speak the local language tend to face difficulties getting around.

The government also recognizes 68 other indigenous Mexican languages as the national languages of the country as there are more than 6 million users of these dialects. The most common among these are Nahuati (2 million speakers), Yucatec Maya (1.5 million speakers), Mixtec (475,000 speakers), Zapotec (450,000 speakers), and Otomi (285,000 speakers). The less common ones are Totonac, Mazatec, Mazahua, Chinantec, Mixe, Purepecha, Tlapanec, Tarahumara, and Zoque to name a few. Many indigenous Mexicans are monolingual, which means that they can speak only their native language. Over a period of time, more than 130 indigenous Mexican languages have disappeared and a few more are expected to go extinct in the coming years. Around 10% to 14% of the population belongs to indigenous groups but barely 6% can speak the native languages. The government is therefore taking several measures to protect the indigenous languages by encouraging bilingual and intercultural education.

Most of the documents and written material in Mexico are printed in Spanish. The government uses this language for almost all forms of oral and written communication. However, since Spanish hasn’t been defined as the official language of Mexican legislation, equal rights have been given to the other Mexican (indigenous) languages. This includes the right to use an indigenous language in government-related communication and documentation.

The use of English is not widespread in Mexico, as only about 13% of the population speaks some amount of it. English is taught in most schools and colleges but is rarely used at home or in the workplace. Many of the schools offer bilingual education right from the start, where half the instructions are given in Spanish and the other half are in the second language, which could be English, French, Tseltal, or Tzotzil. So while a majority of Mexicans have a basic understanding of the English language, they cannot easily converse with foreigners, mainly due to lack of practice. Other languages like Catalan, German, French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Venetian, Basque, Filipino, Korean, Cherokee, Hebrew, and Armenian are spoken only by a small number of people. Many of the old church documents have been recorded in Latin.

Throughout the country, signs, tickets, timetables, menus, shop names and all other such items are written only in Spanish. All expats should therefore familiarize themselves with at least the basics of Spanish in order to get around and communicate with the locals. Many foreigners use translation books and apps to converse with Mexicans. Some expats also hire translation guides in order to get around more easily.

English is an added advantage, not a prerequisite, for getting good jobs in most industries in Mexico. When it comes to work, those who belong to the Tourism or Hospitality industries and live in the cities are quite fluent in English. They find it much easier to communicate with foreigners compared to the other locals. The skilled laborers and government officials speak hardly any English at all. Most expats therefore tend to pick up Spanish quickly, especially if they are working. Fortunately, it is also easy to find Spanish classes in Mexico offering private or group tuitions. Some of the most well-known institutes for Spanish classes include:

Don Quijote
Calle Pastita 76, Barrio Pastita. 36090 Guanajuato
Tel: +52 34 923277200
Toll Free: 1 800 518 0412

Guadalajara Language Center
Francisco I. Madero #160a, San Pedro Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Mexico CP 45500
Tel: +52 (33) 3635-2535
Toll Free: 1 866 275 5222

Spanish Institute Of Puebla
11 Oriente #10, Centro Historico, Puebla, Puebla 72000
Tel: +52 222 242 2062
Toll Free: 1 800 554 2951

The deaf and mute community in most parts of Mexico tends to use Mexican Sign Language or Yucatan Sign Language to communicate. In 2005, the former was officially declared the “national language” to be used by the educational system for the deaf. In northern Baja, American Sign Language is more common.

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