Living in Mexico. EVERYTHING you need to know (and then some)
Spanish is not the official language of Mexico, but is the most common
October 7, 2019
One of the many surprises that comes to people who arrive here is the language. For some reason, a large majority of Americans and Canadians, not-so-much the Europeans because they are more well-versed with language and culture, believe that “Mexican” is spoken in Mexico.
So, so, so many times have I been left dumbfounded at the comments I’ve heard while around tourists in the center of my city regarding the language. I’ve even read social media comments where people assume the same thing, that “Mexican” is spoken in Mexico.
An efficient internet search, rather than a misguided social media comment, would inform you that Spanish is the most spoken language, but, depending on how efficient your source is, they may even know that it is not the official language.
To clear things up, Mexican Spanish is spoken throughout most of the country as opposed to Castilian Spanish, which is the primary Spanish spoken in Spain. In my region, however, Spanish is not the first official language, as is the case with many parts of the country. While it is the most commonly spoken language, Maya is the first official language of my region in the state of Quintana Roo.
Tourists do not realize that when they travel around cities like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, for example, many of the words they see in business names and street names are actually Maya and not Spanish.
The word Tulum, which is the name of a popular beach resort south of Playa del Carmen, means “wall” in Maya. The name Akumal, the area popular for its sea turtle swimming means “place of turtles”, while the name Cancun means “nest of serpents” in the Maya language.
Other popular Maya words include Xcaret, the name for the large theme park in Riviera Maya. In Maya, xcaret means “small inlet”. The word “tun” is very commonly added to street names in this region, which in Maya means “stone”. Xel-Há (pronounced shell-ha), another popular Riviera Maya theme park, is also a Maya name that means “where the water is born”.
You may be surprised to learn that a large majority of the Mayan people live south of Playa del Carmen. Although they live everywhere throughout the region, the largest concentration is found closer to the border in the southern part of the state.
Many of those folks, who were obviously born and raised in Mexico, do not speak Spanish and therefore, cannot communicate with their Mexican comrades who speak only Spanish.
I’ve stood in shopping line-ups many times and listened to the very distinct Maya language being spoken by people behind me. It is a very thick language and does not sound at all like Spanish, making it easy to pick out.
I’ve also been party to one (Spanish-speaking) Mexican woman telling another (Maya) Mexican woman “no entiendo su idioma” (I do not understand your language) during a bit of a heated conversation between the two. It was probably best they could not understand one another.
If you intend to move here, you will not need Maya past an interest-base to understand a bit about the local culture, however, you will certainly need to learn Spanish since it is the most commonly spoken language across the country.
In Canada, since I’m Canadian, there also is no one official language. Both English and French are considered “official” and are given equal status in the country.
In Mexico, the government recognizes 68 national languages, of which 63 are indigenous. Of those 63 indigenous languages, there are 350 dialects.