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Whilst learning some key Spanish or Portuguese phrases before your visit to Latin America is sure to be appreciated, in a continent with over 600 indigenous groups, why not learn a few words from one of the 700 indigenous languages of the region to really impress?

What language do they speak in Latin America?

Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Latin America, followed by Portuguese. Nearly 210 million South Americans speak Spanish, with the largest number living in Colombia.

The indigenous language in Bolivia and Peru is Quechuan, with origins dating back to a small area in the southern Peruvian highlands and spoken until 1450. Along with Aymara, this is also the main indigenous language of the Andes.

indigenous languages of latin america

For me, the variety of colourful characters and personalities I’ve encountered on my travels have had an immeasurably positive impact on my experiences and left me with lasting memories and friendships. Even without any prior knowledge of the local languages, you’ll find it impossible to explore Latin America without meeting a host of warm and friendly people. Nonetheless, I have little doubt that speaking the language (or at least attempting to!) made way for new opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily have had if I’d shied away from my phrasebook. From enjoying a home-cooked dinner with a Bolivian family whom I met on a flight, to listening to one of Bolivia’s most popular guitarists, Manuel Monroy Chazarreta, play live in somebody’s living room, I am sure that those early, shaky attempts at speaking the language influenced my experiences for the better.

I should confess that when I speak about my ‘attempts to speak the language’, I am predominantly referring to Spanish and Portuguese. My grasp of indigenous languages is currently limited to a smattering of Quechuan words; some useful, such as the term ‘cuy’ which refers to the Andean delicacy of cooked guinea pig, and others less so, ‘ch’aki’ meaning ‘hangover’ for instance! However, as the most widely spoken indigenous language in Latin America, with some 10 million speakers spread across Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Argentina, knowing even just a few Quechuan terms can go a long way to enriching your experience of Andean culture and traditions.

To refer to ‘Quechua’ in the singular is problematic due to its widely fluctuating dialects. In fact the Quechuan language varies so much so that speakers of different dialects are not always mutually intelligible! Often referred to as the ‘language of the Incas’, Quechuan in its various forms, was actually spoken long before the creation of the Incan Empire and continued to grow after its downfall. Upon Spanish colonisation of the continent, Quechuan was used as the main means of communication between Spaniards and the indigenous population, as well by the Roman Catholic Church as the language of evangelisation. It is as a result of this, that the language extended further afield than its original roots amidst the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador. The Quechua culture itself is community oriented with a focus on community action and mutual help, known as ‘ayni’. Quechuan society is structured around the idea of reciprocity, in which communities work together to help and support one another. This strong focus on community organisation allowed Quechuan communities in Peru to successfully defend themselves against guerrilla warfare during the more tumultuous times of the nation’s history.

Whilst some argue that the Quechuan spoken in the Peruvian city of Cuzco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire, is the purest form, I am instead going to look at the dialect of South Bolivian Quechua, which is spoken in the central and Southern area of Bolivia as well as the most northerly parts of Argentina and Chile. This dialect, known as qulla or colla, is spoken by up to 2.8 million people making it the most widely spoken indigenous language in Bolivia. It is also the same dialect that I would overhear when getting lost in the vast street markets of Bolivia.

latin american words to learn before you travel

FOOD AND DRINK:

Abajeño – purple skinned potato

Anticuchos – skewers of finely sliced meat (normally heart) grilled in a satay-esque sauce. A favourite of drunken Bolivian revellers in the early hours of the morning.

Api – A thick, fragrant beverage generally made from purple corn, cinnamon, cloves and citrus zest. It’s served steaming hot (perfect for those chilly Andean mornings) often along with a ‘pastel’, a deep fried pastry pocket filled with cheese and dusted with sugar (much better than it sounds)

Chicha – a traditional alcoholic drink made from fermented corn. Often sold by the bucket and drunk using the gourd of a fruit, this insipid tasting drink has an acquired taste which, for some reason, tends to get better with each sip.

Ch’arki – jerky (usually made using beef or llama meat)

Chuño – a freeze dried potato (traditionally prepared by exposing them to the night time temperatures of the Andean plains followed by the intense sunlight of day over a five day period) – not to everybody’s taste!

USEFUL PHRASES:

Raphi! – Hello

Wuasleglla! – Good bye!

Mascata Munaqui? - How much do you want?

Allichu – Please

Diuspagarasunki – Thanks

Mana japikkana – I don’t understand

Ari – Yes

Mana – No

NB: Unfortunately, when it comes to the pronunciation of these words I am no expert, hence the lack of a pronunciation guide. However, having stumbled clumsily through the Spanish language during my first visit to Latin America, I have come to the conclusion that even the most tongue-tied attempt at speaking a new language is highly rewarding!

Yearning for an Andes experience? Take a look at our Signature Andes: Highlands of Peru, Bolivia & Chile holiday which captures the natural and cultural highlights of southern Andes of Peru, the altiplano of Bolivia and the salt flats straddling the border with Chile.

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  • Ben Line
    Ben Line - Travel Expert

    Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Head of Sales.

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    After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.

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    Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.

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    Charlotte Daubeney - Travel Expert

    Charlotte's fascination with Latin America began with a family holiday to Belize. She went on to study Spanish in school and at university before spending a year living in Santiago, Chile.

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    Having spent part of her childhood in Colombia and worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, Hannah's ties to Latin America run deep. Hannah is a much valued Travel Expert in our Tailor-made Holidays and Group Tours sales team.

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