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Being from Guatemala Doesn’t Mean I Speak Spanish


Many people assume that immigrants from Central American countries like Guatemala are all Spanish speakers. While that is the case with many, not all Guatemalans speak Spanish. Instead, they may rely on a Mayan language or another indigenous language. An Arawakan language is also used by some Guatemalans.

Among those who rely on a Mayan, Arawakan, or indigenous language, Spanish fluency can vary. Some may also speak Spanish well, while others may have a moderate or limited understanding of Spanish. There are also Guatemalans that don’t know any Spanish and solely use their primary language.

Being a Guatemalan that doesn’t speak Spanish can present unique challenges. While many can navigate their home communities with ease – as many of the other languages are relatively commonly used within specific regions – they may struggle to communicate effectively in areas where Spanish is the dominant language.

Additionally, immigrating to the United States can come with significant communication difficulties, as well as heightened discrimination. Here’s a look at the languages of Guatemala, as well as the challenges many Guatemalan immigrants that don’t speak Spanish face.


The Languages of Guatemala

As is the case in most nations, a wide array of languages are spoken in Guatemala. As mentioned above, Spanish is the country’s official language, and it’s spoken by about 93 percent of the population. However, 21 Mayan languages are also spoken in Guatemala. Also, there’s an Arawakan language spoken in the country, as well as another indigenous language.

Spanish in Guatemala

Spanish wasn’t originally spoken by the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Instead, it was introduced by Spaniards – including colonists, missionaries, and explorers – and was taught to Guatemalans. Early Guatemalan schools relied on Spanish, and it remains the primary language for educational instruction in the country to this day.

Mayan Languages in Guatemala

As discussed previously, there are 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. The most widely used Mayan language – and the second-most used language in the nation, coming in behind Spanish – is K’iche’ (also known as Quiché). In total, approximately 1 million Guatemalans speak K’iche’ today.

Others are also consistently used, though the number of speakers is significantly smaller than you find with K’iche’. Here is a list of the Mayan languages used in Guatemala:

  • Achi
  • Akatek
  • Awakatek
  • Ch’orti’
  • Chuj
  • Itza’
  • Ixil
  • Jakaltek
  • Kaqchikel
  • K’iche’
  • Mam
  • Mopan
  • Poqomam
  • Poqomchi’
  • Q’anjob’al
  • Q’eqchi’
  • Sakapultek
  • Sipakapense
  • Tektitek
  • Tz’utujil
  • Uspanteko

Most of the languages above are spoken by Guatemalans in specific regions. However, you may find speakers of many of the languages in larger cities.

Other Languages of Guatemala

While Spanish and Mayan languages make up the bulk of the spoken languages in Guatemala, there are also two other languages that are used by residents. Xinca is an indigenous language that’s also spoken in El Salvador and Honduras, but the number of speakers is declining rapidly, putting Xinca close to extinction.

Garifuna is a non-Mayan language that was brought to Guatemala, so it doesn’t qualify as an indigenous language in the region. It originated in St. Vincent communities among peoples of African and Caribbean descent and made its way to Central American countries, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Immigration Challenges Non-Spanish-Speaking Guatemalans Face

Often, all immigrants face some degree of difficulty when immigrating to the United States if they don’t speak English. However, Spanish speakers may find it easier to communicate with the broader population. An estimated 13 percent of the US population speaks Spanish at home. There are millions of additional speakers, such as those who learned Spanish as a second language or who are the descendants of native speakers that use English at home. As a result, being a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan usually means that there’s a significant segment of the US population to communicate with relatively easily.

Additionally, Spanish interpreters and translators are relatively accessible in many larger cities. That gives Spanish-speaking Guatemalans a resource they can tap into in a variety of situations, such as during medical appointments or for legal proceedings.

For Guatemalans that don’t speak Spanish, the situation is more difficult. Mayan, Arawakan, or indigenous language speakers won’t find many people in US communities that also speak their language. Further, access to suitable interpreters and translators is incredibly limited. As a result, finding an

effective way to communicate in any situation – including challenging scenarios, such as when addressing medical needs or moving through legal proceedings – is difficult, if not functionally impossible in some areas.

Significant language barriers create obstacles, making it hard to navigate their US communities at even a basic level, especially when assistance from another person is required. They can also limit employment opportunities and increase the person’s risk of encountering discrimination. As a result, Guatemalans that don’t speak Spanish often face an uphill battle that’s far steeper than their Spanish-speaking counterparts may experience.

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