Teaching Summary: Language Shift

Nina Beriss

Do you want to educate students about the impacts of colonial contexts on Indigenous languages in Mexico? Are you interested in adding linguistic context to a global studies or history course? 

Overview: This module introduces the concept of language shift and assumes no previous linguistic knowledge. The lesson defines the phenomenon and explains factors and circumstances that result in language shift. It also compares numbers in Colonial Valley Zapotec and its modern equivalent spoken in San Lucas Quiaviní to demonstrate how language shift has impacted Zapotec words. (It could be used effectively as a stand alone lesson or after the Numbers lesson.) Interviews with Zapotec speaking educators who discuss the causes and impacts of language shift as well as resistance to it are also provided in this lesson.

Grade Level Recommendations: High school and undergraduate college students

Courses and Units:  This module is appropriate for an Introduction to Linguistics course, a Language and Society course, or self study. It could also be incorporated into courses on global studies, Latin America studies, and history. The lesson assumes no prior knowledge of linguistics.

Time: This module can be taught in approximately 2 – 4 hours.

Major Points (by section):

  • Given certain circumstances, communities of speakers of any language can undergo language shift, as this has to do with structural contexts relating to language and power such as educational systems and social dynamics. Language shift happens frequently in colonial contexts. Its occurrence in Indigenous communities is often the result of discriminatory ideas and behaviors regarding Indigenous people and knowledge. In most Zapotec-speaking communities, Spanish has begun to replace Zapotec as the main language used in many communities and contexts.
  • Words used for counting in Valley Zapotec have changed between 1578 and the present. This section guides readers through comparing and contrasting numbers in Zapotec from 1578 and the counting systems in San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec today. Readers learn how language shift has impacted the Zapotec counting system beyond the loss of words.
  • Sr. Filemón Pérez Ruiz discusses what is happening to Zapotec in San Pablo Macuiltianguis, Oaxaca. He explains how, due to the government’s promotion of Spanish and non-recognition of Indigenous languages, Zapotec is seen as inferior and is being spoken less and less. He describes how he was punished for speaking Zapotec at school and taught only to speak Spanish. He describes progress that has been made in working to preserve Zapotec by others in his community, but he states that most younger people are uninterested in its preservation.
  • Maestra María Mercedes Méndez Morales discusses what is happening with Zapotec in San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya. She states that her Zapotec language is close to being lost, stressing the importance of teaching it to children. She explains that the language’s preservation is crucial for learning about past generations’ traditional medicines and foods, and how older community members’ knowledge will help in pursuits of preservation. The Maestra emphasizes her desire to spread awareness of the beauty of their language and culture.

Guiding Questions (by section):

  • Introduction: Has there been a language shift in your family, community, or both? What factors may have contributed to it?
  • Colonial and Modern Zapotec Numbers: What changes have taken place in these numbers, and why? If you speak a Zapotec language, how do your numbers compare with the San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec numbers?
  • Causes of Language Shift: What factors are identified for the Zapotec to Spanish language shift? What similarities and differences do you see in factors contributing to other language shifts?
  • Impact of Language Shift and Resistance: How does the Maestra describe what is happening with Zapotec? What are some things she mentions that may be lost from language shift? What are some individuals and communities doing to resist language shift?


  • Language shift: a process in which a community of speakers shifts from speaking some language to speaking a different language, usually taking place over several generations

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