More than Sixty Indigenous Languages Survived the Conquest in Colombia

By Dialogo
July 14, 2009

Madrid, 13 July (EFE).- Spanish is Colombia’s official language, but there also survive around sixty indigenous languages that the Spanish presence has not abolished, several prominent figures in the study of the Spanish language and Colombian history emphasized today in Madrid. “Colombia Speaks Spanish, Wayuu, and Bantu: The Value of Language in Colombian Society” was the title and guiding theme of a roundtable organized by the Colombian embassy in Spain and the Iberoamerican General Secretariat (SEGIB). In this setting, the director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Language, Víctor García de la Concha, affirmed that “Spanish is not a language of empire, but rather a citizen language.” “The Habsburgs did not have a policy of preaching in Spanish, since they also did not want the indigenous inhabitants to come into contact with the Spanish administration,” he maintained. García de la Concha also emphasized that Colombia was the first American country to found an Academy of Language. Former Colombian president Belisario Betancur similarly indicated that the Spanish Crown had little interest - at the beginning of the Conquest - in eliminating Native American languages, and he gave as an example the members of religious orders who learned indigenous languages, such as Chibcha in Colombia, for their evangelizing mission. Betancur argued that bilingualism was established under Philip II and that for Spaniards designated for religious and administrative tasks in the Americas, mastery of the languages chosen for these purposes was obligatory. “When Charles III prohibited the use of indigenous languages throughout the empire, many of them were already extinct, on account of factors like mestizaje,” he added. The Iberoamerican general secretary, Enrique Iglesias, pointed out that Spanish is the second most international language and that thanks to this language, “we are a community, because we merely shared the same space before.” He also highlighted the economic dimension of Spanish, given that “an economy becomes stronger and more effective with a common language,” as Iglesias said at this event, hosted by the vice-president of the Telefónica Foundation, Javier Nadal. The director of the Cervantes Institute, Carmen Caffarel, emphasized the projects developed by her institution together with various Latin American countries to spread Spanish language and culture in places where this language is not known. Among these projects, Caffarel highlighted the work of the International Certification System for Spanish as a Foreign Language (Sicele), “in which Colombia has a leading role,” she said. Sicele, the director continued, promotes mutual recognition between Spain and Latin America and encourages respect for local languages and cultures, as well as interchange of experiences among students. For his part, the Colombian ambassador in Spain, Carlos Rodado Noriega, stated that “Colombia has a reputation as a nation where Spanish is spoken correctly” and added that his country has a lasting tradition of “speaking well,” something that is indispensable not only in literature but also in other human activities. “In Colombia we venerate Spanish, but we also respect and appreciate indigenous and Afro-American languages (...) like Wayuu and Bantu; the Bantu cultural landscape has been proclaimed a masterpiece of humanity’s spoken and intangible heritage by UNESCO,” the diplomat maintained. Rodado also said that the Colombian Constitution recognizes sixty other indigenous languages, in addition to Spanish, Wayuu, and Bantu, as official languages in the regions where they are spoken.