The Economic Impact of Indigenous Languages in Mexico: A Comprehensive Research Analysis

  • Thursday, 10/10/2024
  • Admin



In the early months of 2023, distinguished academics Diego de la Fuente Stevens and Pelkonen Panu, hailing from the University of Sussex's Department of Economics, published a research document titled "Economics of Minority Groups: Labor-Market Returns and Transmission of Indigenous Languages in Mexico." 

This study defies conventional beliefs by demonstrating that the path to success is not solely paved by proficiency in English, the de facto dominating global language for business, research and entertainment -with Spanish, Mandarin, German and Russian emerging in popularity-, encouraging us to ask ourselves a critical question: Do we overlook the potential career-enhancing benefits of learning indigenous or minoritised languages?

Prior to Mexico’s colonisation by the Spanish Empire, approximately 350 indigenous languages flourished within the territory, with an estimated 60% of the population conversing in these languages as of 1820.

These figures starkly contrast with contemporary statistics, which indicate that only 5.8% of Mexico's population spoke an indigenous language in 2020. 

In their 2000 book, "Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages,"  Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine shared the sobering prediction that 90% of the world’s languages would disappear within the next century.    

De la Fuente Stevens and Panu draw upon these findings in their research to elucidate the lack of supportive state institutions in emerging economies, contributing to the erosion of minoritised languages and a decreased likelihood of their transmission to future generations. 

Surprisingly, the research conducted by De la Fuente Stevens and Panu identifies certain economic advantages tied to proficiency in indigenous dialects within the Mexican communities under study. 

The project focused on 34 native languages, including Nahuatl, Maya, Tzeltal, Mixteco, Tzotzil, Tarahumara, Mayo, and Cora. Accessing the necessary information about these languages was possible thanks to the structure of the Mexican census, which incorporated questions regarding the ethnicity and language of every Mexican household over the years. This offers a profound reflection on the importance of incorporating precise demographic data in national censuses to facilitate research of a similar nature in other countries.


Key findings

Employment and Earnings: The first outcome shown in their research revealed that men who are bilingual exhibit a 2–4 percentage point higher likelihood of employment and enjoy a 4.9 percentage point increase in earnings compared to their Spanish-only speaking counterparts. 

Among the 34 languages examined, 16 displayed statistically significant positive employment benefits. These findings suggest that the economic advantages of indigenous language proficiency are primarily concentrated in sectors predominantly staffed by indigenous communities, such as agriculture, craftsmanship, and other traditional occupations. 

The research proves that for hundreds of individuals, their native languages can still be a chance of receiving better opportunities in their careers.


Language Transmission: The second part of the research studies the likelihood of parents passing down indigenous languages to their children. Remarkably, when both parents are fluent in the indigenous language, there is a 73% probability of language transmission to future generations. However, when either parent speaks only Spanish, the likelihood of transmission dwindles to a mere 5-8%. This underscores the vulnerability of minority languages in mixed marriages, particularly in urban settings where proficiency in a specific language may not directly impact work opportunities.


De la Fuente Stevens and Panu's project serves as a beginning for profound discussions surrounding the preservation of languages and the external factors that can either propel them toward extinction or secure their enduring presence within minoritised communities. It prompts us to reflect on linguistic diversity's intrinsic value in shaping economic and cultural landscapes. 

For those interested in exploring the complete research, the University of Sussex offers access to the full document on their digital platform, accessible to the public here.


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