More than just Spanish, Colombia speaks dozens of languages

Wayuu girl in La Guajira
Wayuu girl in La Guajira

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he world lost two literary giants on the same date, 400 years ago. Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare both passed away on April 23, 1616, an anniversary commemorated each year in Colombia as the Día del Idioma (Day of Language).

[infobox title=’Languages of Colombia’]


Wayúu, Achagua, Piapoco, Kurripako, Baniwa, Kawiyari, Yukuna, Tariano, Baniba


Muinane, Bora, Miraña


Yuco, Karijona


Kogui, Ika, Damana, Uwa, Chimila, Barí, Kuna


Embera, Waunan


Sikuani, Hitnu, Kuiba, Guayabero


Piunave, Yujup-Maku, Cacua, Nukak


Saliba, Piaroa






Witoto, Okaina, Nonuya


Coreguaje, Siona, Kubeo, Pisamira, Piratapuyo, Wanano, Desano, Carapana, Tucano, Tatuyo, Taiwano, Barasana, Bará, Macuna, Tuyuka, Yurutí, Siriano, Tanim uka


San Andrés, Palenquero


Andoke, Tinigua, Tikuna, Yagua, Cofan, Kanentsa, Páez, Guambiano, Awa, Yaruro

*Source — Centro Colombiano de Estudios de Lenguas Aborigenes


Officially, Colombia’s Día del Idioma refers to the Spanish language, in honor of Cervantes, one of its most notable proponents. The day is marked by efforts to promote literacy and reading, particularly among youth.

And Spanish is unquestionably Colombia’s dominant language — at least since it arrived with Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. But it’s certainly not the only language spoken in the country.

According to the Banco de la República’s cultural and anthropological offices, some 400,000 Colombians — or about .85 percent of the national population — speak one or more of 65 different indigenous languages. The country’s Caro y Cuervo Institute estimates the number may be as high as 1 million.

At least two creole tongues, which have African, Spanish and English influences, can be heard on the Caribbean coast and the islands of San Andrés and Providencia.

The three largest native languages in Colombia — Wayúu, Paez and Embera — each have more than 50,000 speakers. But more than 30 languages have fewer than 1,000 living speakers, putting them at serious risk of disappearance.

Some, like the Carijona tongue spoken near Miraflores, Guaviare, or the Tinigua language spoken in the Caquetá department, have so few speakers left that their numbers can be counted on two hands, according to Ethnologue, a Texas-based publication on world languages.

“We are still far from a fair appreciation of indigenous peoples and their cultural values,” said Caro y Cuervo Institute representatives in a statement. “If we don’t give their languages the treatment they deserve or respect their speakers, cultural expressions will continue to fade.”

Colombian law guarantees access to bilingual and native-language education in indigenous communities, but economic, political and social factors mean the quality of that education varies considerably.

Colombia celebrates native languages each year as part of the United Nations International Mother Language Day in February.


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