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Language Education Policy in Guatemala

Guatemala is the second largest country in Central America and has the largest indigenous population of any Central American country. While Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, there are over 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. The Mayan languages of Guatemala include Quiché, Mam, Cakchiquel, and Kekchi, which are spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Other indigenous languages include Kanjobal, Chuj, Jacalteco, Ixil, Achi, Pocomchi, Central Pocomam, Eastern Pocomam, and Tzutuhil. Today, indigenous rights are covered in the Guatemalan constitution.


Language policy in Guatemala has been greatly influenced by war, colonization, and geography. Ancient Mayan civilizations of 2000 BC to 900 AD spoke early forms of Mayan languages. When Guatemala was colonized by Spain during the 1500s, the Spanish enslaved Guatemala’s indigenous people, converted Mayans to Christianity, and introduced Spanish to the Mayan people.  Guatemala gained independence in 1821 and Spanish became the language meant to serve as “‘a vehicle for unifying a fragmented peoplehood’” (cited in Helmberger, 2006, p 70). At this time, the government sought to eliminate Mayan languages, but because of the far-reaching rural areas of Guatemala and the lack of resources to teach Spanish in the schools, these languages survived.


Guatemala has created multiple educational language policies in order to help preserve the Mayan languages. The Instituto Indigenista Nacional, created in 1945, worked to train teachers to work with indigenous students and created a program that allowed Mayan students to read in their first language before learning to read in Spanish (Helmberger, p. 70). When Spanish became the official language of instruction in 1965, the Bilingual Castilianization Program was created to “eas[e] the transition from the mother tongue to Spanish” (Helmberger, p. 71). With this program, Mayan children started school a year early to learn to read and write in their mother tongue while receiving instruction in Spanish.


The Programa Nacional de Educacion Bilingue (PRONEBI) was created in 1985 by the Ministry of Education as “an effort to recognize a multilingual and multiethnic Guatemala, PRONEBI was charged with administering the planning and implementation of bilingual education to Guatemala’s rural Indigenous youth” (Garcia, Lopez, and Makar, 2010, p.366). This program championed the power of Mayan identity with the motto “alfabetizase para ser nosotros (become literate in order to be ourselves)” (Garcia, Lopez, and Makar, 2010, p.366). In 1996, the Peace Accords included a signed agreement to “plan bilingual and bicultural education across the country” (Garcia, Lopez, and Makar, 2010, p.366).


In recent years there has been a focused revitalization of culture known as the Mayan movement, whose main purpose has been to seek recognition of all Mayan languages. “The Mayan movement calls for Mayan participation in political and socioeconomic decisions and...seeks recognition and respect as being culturally, linguistically and historically different from the ‘official’ culture” (Guevera, 2009). Likewise, despite the fact that media has traditionally been presented in Spanish, community radio stations that promote and discuss indigenous issues, play marimba music, and are presented in Mayan languages have helped Mayan cultures share their ideas with their community. There are currently 240 community radio stations broadcasting in 23 Mayan languages (Camp, n.d.).





Camp, M. (n.d.). Cultural survival: A question of frequency: Community radio in Guatemala. Retrieved from


Garcia, O., Lopez, D., & Makar, C. (2010). Latin America. In J. Fishman and O. Garcia (Eds), Handbook of language and ethnic identity: Disciplinary and regional perspectives. (Volume 1, 2nd ed.)  (pp. 353-373).  New York: Oxford Press.


Guevera, F. (2009). Mayan languages and the Mayan movement in Guatemala. Retrieved from


Helmberger, J. (2006).  “Language ethnicity: Multiple literacies in context, language education in Guatemala.” Bilingual Research Journal, 30 (1), 65-86.  


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Nixon, Jessie. (2015). Language Education Policy in Guatemala. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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