Speaking the Many Languages of Mexico

Map of MexicoDespite the political rhetoric that sometimes surrounds relations between the United States and Mexico, one thing remains certain: interactions between our two countries—economically, culturally and socially—will continue to play significant roles in our mutual growth and success. Our geographic proximity and our shared interests mean we will remain active partners far into the future.

Many of our translation and interpreting clients understand this reality and come to us to strengthen their communication efforts in Spanish. This runs the gamut from entrepreneurs looking to do business in Mexico to companies and non-profits trying to better serve their Mexican customers living in the U.S. But we find a common misconception among many of our clients, and that is: Spanish translation is a one-size-fits-all proposition.

To which we say, hardly. The languages of Mexico are many and varied.

Next to English, Spanish is by far the most common language spoken by people living in the United States. The 40 million or so people speaking some form of Spanish far outpaces the next closest challenger, Chinese, with about 3 million speakers. Mexico itself has roughly 121 million native residents.

But it’s wrong to think that a standard Spanish translation will automatically appeal to all Mexican residents, whether living here in the states or in their own country. That’s where the one-size-fits-all philosophy breaks down.

According to Ethnologue, there are nearly 300 living language varieties spoken in Mexico besides Spanish. This includes between 87,000 and 100,000 people who speak Mexican Sign Language. Eight percent of Mexico’s population speaks one of many Native American languages. When creating Spanish translations for use in Mexico, it is important to understand that much of this country’s unique Spanish vocabulary reflects Mexico’s cultural diversity, and the influence of other languages that co-exist with Spanish.

A few of the larger language varieties also spoken in Mexico include Nahuatl (1,749,000 speakers), Maya (740,000), Zapotec (444,000), Mixtec (418,070) and Mazahua (367,000). To add to the linguistic complexities, some of the language families have multiple variations. For example, within Mixtec, there are over 50 different languages. Some of these are similar to one another, but most are distinct in their own right. Similarly, the Zapotec language family has nearly 60 sub-languages. Many of these variations are native languages that pre-date the arrival of Spanish colonists and thus have no strong connection to Spanish as most know it.

Obviously, such diversity within languages creates unique challenges for businesses and organizations trying to communicate effectively across different groups.

The communication barrier is compounded by cultural differences as well. Many of those speaking one of the minority languages invariably have customs and traditions different than the rest of Mexico as a whole. Understanding the rituals and beliefs of such groups is important to “localize” your message to fully connect with the audience. For businesses operating inside Mexico, those people may be potential customers or workers; for hospitals, schools, governments and shops operating in the U.S., those people are residents, clients and patients needing to be served.

So if you’re thinking about expanding your multilingual outreach efforts to include the bountiful Mexican market, don’t assume a simple Spanish translation is enough. Depending on where your audience is from or where your message will be delivered, the words you use may be very different.

To help navigate the many languages of Mexico, give us a call. Our trained translators and interpreters are ready to assist!


For more than 30 years, ASIST Translation Services, Inc. has worked with business, government, educational and non-profit clients around the world. We improve foreign language communications through a full menu of translation and interpreting services, including content localization, studio voice recording & audio-visual production, transcreation, proofreading, website content, page layout & design, cultural training, and other specialized language support. To learn more about how we can assist you, visit our LinkedInTwitter or Facebook pages or our Website!

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