The University of Michigan offers classes in seven different languages of Latin America and the Caribbean (not including English). This diversity reflects the history of the region: two are languages indigenous to Latin America and are still spoken by large and vibrant indigenous communities; four are European languages that became the official languages of imperial and republican governments and power, and one is a West African language that first migrated with enslaved speakers and today is still used in multiple contexts in the region.
Several of the Latin American and Caribbean languages taught at U-M are considered “Less Commonly Taught Languages” or LCTLs. In offering these LCTLs, UM gives students rare opportunities for language training that many employers consider critical for navigating today’s globalized world but that few US-based employees are able to obtain. The US government similarly sees this kind of language and area studies expertise as vital and thus has authorized LACS to award Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships for select undergraduate and graduate students who study these languages alongside area studies courses about Latin America and the Caribbean.
LACS takes special pride in offering students the opportunity to study two indigenous languages, as these are keys to the histories, traditions, and worldviews of many Latin American people. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, thousands of languages were spoken on the continent. Today, many of these languages have gone extinct, and with them, precious pieces of the region’s cultural heritage. Nonetheless, a few hundred indigenous languages are still spoken in Latin America, and many migrant communities in the United States speak them as well. Meanwhile, students and scholars of pre-Columbian civilizations will find great value in the study of indigenous languages and/or writing systems.
FLAS-Eligible LACS Languages Offered at U-M
Nahuatl is an indigenous language that forms part of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Nahuatl was the official language of the Aztec Empire, an alliance of city-states that ruled the Valley of Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries. Following the arrival of Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and colonial officials, Nahuatl became a literary language used in chronicles, codices, and administrative documents. Today around two million people speak variants of Nahuatl, primarily throughout Central Mexico. In addition, many migrant communities in the United States predominantly speak Nahuatl, creating a need for trained interpreters to assist with medical, legal, and other administrative matters.
Nahuatl is offered by LACS and is a FLAS-eligible LCTL. U-M students can take Nahuatl through remote classes taught by instructors from the Zacatecas Institute for Teaching and Research in Ethnology (IDIEZ) at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas in Mexico.
Quechua was the language of the Inca (Inka) Empire that ruled large parts of South America at the time of the first Spanish incursions in the region. It is part of a linguistic family that today includes some 10 million speakers, the majority of whom live in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, both in the rural highlands and urban areas. Quechua-speaking communities also reside in Colombia and northwestern Argentina, while Quechua-speaking migrants from all of these regions live across the United States and Europe. Quechua is the most widely spoken American Indigenous language today and has the status of an official language in Peru and Bolivia.
Quechua is offered by LACS and is a FLAS-eligible LCTL. Students can take Quechua on campus during the academic year, or at the Centro Tinku in Peru over the summer.
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil owing to its colonization by the Portuguese from the 16th to 19th centuries. Brazil today is the largest country in Latin America with approximately 215 million residents. It is one of the emerging global geopolitical powers of the 21st century and a major player in the areas of agriculture, the environment, energy and biofuels, media, popular music, aerospace, banking, and sustainable development. 60% of the Amazon rainforest —critical to the planet’s survival— is located within Brazilian territory. Brazil is a multiracial nation with the largest Afro-descendant population outside of the African continent.
Portuguese is also the official language of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor.
Portuguese is offered by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. LACS additionally offers a mini-course each Winter term in Portuguese for the Professions for those seeking to undertake an internship in a Portuguese-speaking country. Students can also study Portuguese during the Fall or Winter terms through the CGIS program in Brazil.
Portuguese is a FLAS-eligible LCTL. The Brazil Initiative also offers undergraduate scholarships for Portuguese language study.
Yoruba is a West African language that first became important in Latin America and the Caribbean when large numbers of Yoruba speakers were forcibly brought to the region as slaves, especially in the 19th century. Due to the influence of these enslaved Africans and their descendants, Yoruba culture and language became part of the region’s evolving social and cultural fabric. Variations of the language are still spoken in many parts of the region, and Yoruba is central to several Afro-Latin American religions. As one marker of its current status, the city of Salvador and the state of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil recently passed laws conferring intangible cultural heritage status on the Yoruba language.
Yoruba is offered by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and is a FLAS-eligible LCTL.
Additional LACS Languages Offered at U-M
The Dutch Republic was an important actor in the Atlantic history of the 16th century when various European powers struggled for control over Latin American and Caribbean territories and the trafficking of enslaved Africans. At various times the Dutch colonized numerous Caribbean islands, Suriname, and a portion of Brazil. Today Dutch is a national language in Suriname, Aruba, and the Dutch Antilles, and historical documents in Dutch offer an important lens on the region’s past.
Dutch is offered by the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. It is a LCTL.
The French established an important colonial and slave-holding presence in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why in multiple Caribbean nations people speak French. French is the official or co-official language of Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, Saint-Bartélemey, and Saint-Pierre, and Miquelon, and is widely spoken in several other Caribbean countries. Historical sources in French are also critical to researchers of the region’s history.
Owing to the long imperial presence of Spain in the region, Spanish Is widely spoken across much of Latin America and the Caribbean and is the official language of 18 countries in the region. Globally today some 591 million people speak Spanish, the majority of them in Latin America. According to the Cervantes Institute, by 2060 the country with the second-largest number of Spanish speakers, after Mexico, will be the United States, a projection that speaks to the close history of the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean.