Monday, July 6, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Ecuador

Last week we looked at the linguistic diversity of Guatemala, and today we're back in the Americas with a look at the many languages spoken in Ecuador, which gets its name from the equator which runs through it.

The Official Languages

It should come as no surprise that the official and national language of Ecuador is Spanish, which was introduced throughout the Americas due to colonization by Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today almost everyone in Ecuador speaks Spanish, including around 13.5 million native speakers and over 700,000 non-native speakers.

Chimborazo volcano, the highest mountain in Ecuador.
However, there are two other languages that have been recognized by Ecuador's constitution as official for intercultural relations: Quichua and Shuar. Nine distinct varieties of Quichua, also spelled Kichwa, are spoken in Ecuador. In Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru combined, there are a total of over 1 million native speakers of Quichua varieties, which all belong to the Quechuan language family.

Shuar, on the other hand, is spoken primarily in southeastern Ecuador. There are approximately 35,000 native speakers of the language, which is also used in radio and taught in primary schools.

Other Languages

Several other indigenous language are used in Ecuador, though all have fewer than 10,000 speakers. The most prominent of these languages is Chachi, also known as Cha'palaa, which is spoken by approximately 9,000 members of the Chachi ethnic group. It is followed by Anchuar-Shiwiar, which has about 4,000 native speakers, and the Colorado and Waorani languages, which are both threatened. Waorani is a language isolate spoken in the Amazon rainforest by around 2,000 people, while Colorado is a member of the Barbacoan language family, which includes the aforementioned Chachi language.

Finally, there are several languages with under 1,000 speakers: Cofán, Media Lengua, Awa-Cuaiquer, Epena, Secoya, Siona, and Záparo. The most interesting of these languages is probably Media Lengua, a mixed language that combines Spanish vocabulary with Quichua grammar. Its exact origins are unknown, but clearly its existence is related to linguistic contact between these two important Ecuadorian languages.