Can a Salvadoran Gang Save an Endangered Language?

Image source: Markarinafotos
Image source: Markarinafotos

“Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear.” – National Geographic/Enduring Voices Project

A recent report by El Diario de Hoy about how Salvadoran gang members are learning Nahuat, caught my eye.

Members of La Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS13), have been instructed by gang leaders to learn Nahuat and other indigenous languages of the Central American country; languages which are highly endangered or almost extinct, and some of which have less than 100 native speakers currently living, according to the report.

Unfortunately, the gang’s purpose of learning these languages isn’t at all altruistic and they have no intention of learning the languages fluently. Gang members have been instructed to learn enough vocabulary to create an indecipherable code which will make it more difficult for law enforcement to intercept their messages.

This is disappointing, of course, although maybe not surprising. We’re left then with the same question linguists always face: How can Nahuat and other endangered languages be saved? Is it enough to merely preserve records of the languages, (such as the video below), or should efforts be made to keep languages alive by encouraging native speakers to pass it on? What sort of encouragement or programs would be successful? Is it a losing battle? What do you think?


Learn Nahuat – Free Resources Online
Video: El Carbonero in Nahuat
Video: Himno a El Salvador en Nahuat
National Geographic: Enduring Voices Project


  1. Sería lindo que los países invirtieran tiempo y esfuerzos por rescatar lo propio. Lastimosamente muchos países son Malinchistas y se van por lo práctico vs lo autóctono. En el caso de el nahuat en El Salvador, es cierto, es un dialecto a punto de extinguirse. Yo en lo personal no conozco a nadie que lo hable mucho menos que tenga la intención de aprenderlo. Sería muy bonito que en las escuelas se ofreciera una materia que enseñara nuestros orígenes culturales y que vaya incluído el Nahuat. Por lo menos que los chicos aprendan los números, alguna cancioncita, nombre de los animales etc.

  2. The question of indigenous languages living on is interesting. In Mexico, it seems like Nahuatl lives on through names- places and people. There has been a resurgence recently of giving kids Nahuatle names- Itzel, Citlali, Cuactemoc, etc. Does that happen with Nahuat?

    • There are a lot of words in Salvadoran Spanish that come from Nahuat, and place names as well… As for giving one’s baby a Nahuat name – I’m sure this happens although I would say it’s less common, just based on all the people I know from El Salvador, their names, and their children’s names. It’s actually more likely that a child will get an Anglo sounding name, (i.e. Alex, Andy, Kathryn, Eric.)

  3. Languages change and die, and new ones get formed all the time. That is no problem at all. There is no merit in keeping languages alive artificially. Let them die gracefully.

    Just make sure they´re well documented, so that the information can be used for linguistic research later on (a fascinating field imo).

    I don’t worry at all about languages dying. I do worry about people dying. MS13 is the scum of the earth.

  4. I’m so glad you posted this video! My husband was born en un canton ahi cerca de Izalco, Sonsonate and he went to school in Izalco. I’m always looking for pictures or videos or whatever I can find from there. I can’t wait until he gets home from work so I can show him this.

    As for Nahuatle and Nahuat names…I just had a baby girl and I tried so hard to convince my husband to let me give her an ‘indigenous’ name (Citlali is a favorite). Like you said, he wanted a name that sounded more Anglo. We ended up settling on something that is easy to read and spell in both Spanish and English just like I did with my first daughter.

  5. All I have to say, to answer the last questions asked at the end of the reading:

    “Should efforts be made to keep languages alive by encouraging native speakers to pass it on? What sort of encouragement or programs would be successful? Is it a losing battle? What do you think?”

    There are efforts being made to keep OUR language alive. Many native speakers, at least the ones I’ve met, are willing to pass it on. But the problem is that the new generations do not want to learn the language.
    There are programs which are being successful. It will be a losing battle if we keep asking what can be done, when the simple answer is TO LEARN HOW TO SPEAK NAHUAT (and nahuat-pipil from El Salvador, not NAHUATL from Mexico).

    I think that the person who wrote this article should start learning nahuat, as well as the other people who commented here, instead of lamenting that our language is going extinct.

    If the mara 13 will be learning nahuat, oh well, I don’t think they might reach a high fluency level. Instead, they might be learning isolated words and “codes” to understand each other, a sort of pidgin. I don’t think they’ll be dedicating hours to language learning, since they have more important things to do.

    i think this is a challenge to all the Salvadoran citizens to realise that our language exists and needs to be learned to be smarter than the uneducated maras.

    • You are totally right. If you want to keep a language alive, you should learn it yourself and teach it to your children. But not only that, you should write books, plays, blogs in that language. The best thing you could do is make a movie that gets a massive cult following (like Twilight), in which the language is prominently featured. That will drive hordes of people to learn it.

      For me, I still see it as wasted effort though. Because language always changes. Linguists did calculations, which showed that an isolated language after a few thousands of years of use, is completely unrecognizable to the original speakers. Simply because words slowly change all the time. The only language that doesn´t change is a dead language.

      (An example of that in Spanish is the word “usted”, which is a contraction of the words “vuestra merced”. Spanish speakers a few hundred years ago would not know that word. For politeness they’d use something like “vos”, which isn’t used anymore in most of the Hispanic world. So we have one word substituted in favor of the other).

      So after many years, what you worked to preserve, will be gone anyway. So I´d say let things flow. Celebrate your culture and your history all you like if it makes you feel good, but don´t worry too much about its future. It’s beyond anybody’s control.

      • Yes, I will always stress on the fact that in order to keep a language alive, one must learn it, speak it, and write it. There are a dozens of good documents already written in nahuat, and one or two very good series of lessons to learn the language as well. Blogs is a good idea as well. The idea is to spread the language as much as we can, as long as it is written correctly (including orthography and most important, that it is understandable). I don’t think a movie can be done right now, but it is a good idea!

        I wouldn’t say it is a wasted effort. There is the New Testament already translated into nawat and many other important documents registered in the language, such as “Tajtaketza ipal Ijtzalku”, which are tales from Izalco speakers before 1932. This will record the language for ages even if it ever goes extinct.

        Nahuat is not an isolated language. Linguistically speaking about its genetics, it is found under the family of Uto-Aztecan languages, where the varieties of nahuatl are found as well (spoken in Mexico), and some other languages in the United States. I don’t know what you mean by “isolated” and the rest of that paragraph.

        I don’t think the example in Spanish is a good one for nahuat.

        It is better to relate it to real cases such as the Basque which is a minority language that is picking up status and acknowledgement in Spain. There have been efforts to that, and it is not a wasted effort. Probably the most part of Spain thought it that way, but the few porcentege that speaks the language have managed to keep it alive.

        If you are Salvadoran, or maybe not, but when you say “what you worked to preserve” gives me the idea that you are just an expectator of a language dying out without doing anything about. We don’t need negative expectations. We need encouragement and help from other learners.


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