The Languages of Colombia - Part 1

The Languages of Colombia - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

With more than 99.2% of the population of Colombia speaking the Spanish language it would appear that Colombia must be one of the more linguistically homogeneous countries on the planet.

With more than 99.2% of the population of Colombia speaking the Spanish language it would appear that Colombia must be one of the more linguistically homogeneous countries on the planet. However, the Spanish spoken in Colombia (known as Colombian Spanish by linguists) is quite different to the traditional Spanish which is spoken in both Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. In addition, there are many regional dialects of this language which can sometimes greatly affect the version of Spanish spoken between one region and another. These are dialects that have grown and developed as the population make-up of specific regions has altered over time.

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Besides the Spanish language, there are also many other languages to be heard in Colombia; however, in general, these languages are used by small pockets of the population. The Colombian government recognizes 65 Amerindian or tribal languages, in addition to two Creole languages – Palenquero and Creole English. Romani is a gypsy language, and this language is also recognized. In the Santa Catalina Islands, San Andreas, and Providencia, the standard English language has been granted official status.

Colombia: a Linguistically Diverse Nation

Obviously, Spanish is the most common language in Colombia, but the Ethnologue database states that there are 101 languages in Colombia, so, according to this estimate, Colombia would be one of the most linguistically diverse nations both in the Americas and the world! It seems that there is a slight difference of opinion on the exact number of languages spoken in Colombia because some linguistic experts maintain that certain languages are stand-alone languages while other experts view them as dialects or varieties of the same language. According to language experts the best estimate is that, as of the year 2015, there are approximately 70 languages spoken in Colombia. There are approximately 850,000 people who speak native languages, with most of these languages belonging to the Arawakan, Chibchan, Cariban, Tucanoan, Saliban, Bora-Witoto, Guajiboan and Barbacoan families.

Colombia has 65 existing indigenous languages today, and these can be divided into 12 distinct language families – 10 of these languages are isolated or not yet classified. These indigenous languages include the following –

  • The great South American families - Cariban, Arhuaco, Tupian, and Quechuan; and
  • Chibchan - the great linguistic family, probably of Central American origin.

Only seven families present at the regional level – Tucano, Bora, Witoto, Macu, Saliba, Guahibo and Chocó; while the ten isolated languages are – Yaruro, Yagua, Tinigua, Ticuna, Páez, Kamentsá, Guambiano, Cofán, Awa-cuaiquer, and Andoque. The combination of these indigenous languages with the languages brought by the slaves, including the various dialects of the conquistadors, has meant that the Colombia we know today has a very interesting combination of languages.

As per the Colombian Constitution, the languages spoken by the various ethnic groups in the different districts and regions of Colombia are considered to be official languages. Non-Spanish languages in some regions of Colombia are the medium of education in schools while other schools are bilingual in that they offer instructions in both the ethnic language of that district and Spanish.

The Spanish Language

In Colombia, the most common language spoken is Spanish, which is a Romance language of European origin. The grammar of this language is derived from Latin, in addition to Italian, French, Romanian and Portuguese. It also includes some elements of Arabic, Greek, and Germanic language influences, but these influences are only noticeable in the vocabulary.

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