Mexico is located in the continent of North America and with a population of just over 100,000,000 represents the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world. Spanish is the de facto official language of the government and the first language of about 90% of the population, although currently there are more than sixty languages represented nationwide (Baldauf & Kaplan, 2007). Other large language groups represented in the population are the Nahuatl (with one and a half million speakers), Yucatec Mayan (with a population of about 800,000 speakers), and the Zapatec and Mixtec (each representing about 500,000 citizens), of whom most are monolingual in their native tongue. Mexico accounts for the largest population of indigenous language speakers in Latin America and, taking into account the number of languages spoken, represents the highest diversity of cultures in the Americas (Terborg, García Landa, & Moore, 2006).
After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, Spanish went from being a minority language representing 10% of the population to a majority 70% within fifty years. It was believed that with the fragmented and linguistically diverse population, a “one-nation, one-language” ideology was desirable and sought by new leadership (Baldauf & Kaplan, 2007). Spanish became the recognized national language due to historic and legislative functions and because it served as a lingua franca for the many indigenous languages represented (Terborg et al., 2006). While Spanish is not the declared official national language, it is used as the main mode of communication in government, education, and most official purposes in Mexico.
According to the The Dirección General de Educación Indígena (DGEI, or General Directorate of Indigenous Education) an estimated 6 million adults were illiterate and over a million indigenous people were monolingual in 1980. In order to rectify this situation, groups such as UNESCO put pressure on the government to reconsider its prior educational policies in regards to formal educational (Baldauf & Kaplan, 2007). It was then that the National Coordinator of Education Workers was formed, a group that emphasized communication and cooperation with other community members and families. Their intent was to focus on a community-oriented education system, a move away from the “prioritization of the formalized, centralized and remote education system which had existed from the 1930s to the 1970s” (Reinke, 2004) It called for a network focused on the community, involving teachers, students, and parents in decision-making for the education programs (Reinke, 2004).
In 1992, the responsibility for language preservation and maintenance was placed on government agencies as a revision of the constitution officially recognized the multilingual and diverse character of present-day Mexico. The Ley general de derechos lingüisticos de los pueblos indígenas (The General Law for the Rights of Indigenous People), established in 2003, recognized indigenous languages as national languages due to their historic origins before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and promotes their use and development. The Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (National Indigenous Languages Institute, better known by its acronym INALI) provided a framework for the coordination of actions to preserve and promote minority languages (Hamel, 2008).
While the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP, or Ministry of Education) advocates the development of literacy materials in indigenous languages, there exists a gap between necessity and actual production as effective, well-developed methodologies for teaching of indigenous languages have yet to be put into place (Baldauf & Kaplan, 2007). Presently, the indigenous educational system employs a wide assortment of instructional practices, although the most prevalent of them makes the inevitable shift to Spanish (Hamel, 2008). In these schools, the general primary school curriculum must be applied. Indigenous schools and teachers are expected to adjust or modify it in ways that fit the needs of their students. Existing official materials in indigenous languages are rarely used, as schools are required to use national compulsory textbooks and primers as the main pedagogical tool in literacy with instruction only in Spanish. Most students entering these schools have no knowledge of Spanish, yet there exists no systematic teaching of Spanish as a second language. Moreover, there is no emphasis or space for native language and culture in the curriculum. Quite commonly, instruction of students’ native language L1 ceases by fourth or fifth grade as indigenous language “serves as a subordinate function” as a language of instruction (Hamel, 2008).
Proponents for indigenous language instruction acknowledge the benefits of acquiring skills in the Spanish language and continue to fight for an educational system that allows them to maintain their traditional practices and languages. Considerable effort is made as not to exclude benefits of being global citizens, although indigenous communities struggle to generate pedagogical practices that are suitable and are pertinent to the local environment. Within a framework of local practices exists the desire to advance in new-age skills, yet values the “coexistence of both the traditional and the modern” (Reinke, 2004). Likewise, in the effort to “increase the quality of education so that students improve their level of educational achievement, have a means of acquiring better welfare and make a greater contribution to national development” the SEP launched the Programa Nacional de Inglés en Educación Básica (PNIEB, or National English Program in Basic Education in 2009. This initiative aimed to teach English to Mexican students starting in pre-primary school continuing until the end of secondary school education (“English in Mexico”, 2015).