MEXICO CITY — Mexico is one of the world's most linguistically diverse countries, but many of its indigenous tongues are in serious danger of extinction. And unless efforts are undertaken to preserve them, about 50 of those languages could disappear within the next 20 years, the Mexico City-based daily El Universal reports.

There are a staggering 364 different languages spoken in Mexico, about half of which are in no immediate danger of extinction. But there were more than 500 before the arrival of Spanish colonists in the late 15th century, and Mexico's linguistic diversity is still in grave danger. Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI) suggests that 43 indigenous tongues are at “high risk” of disappearing with another 72 at “moderate risk.”

Jorge Toledo, president of the Senate's Commission of Indigenous Affairs and a son of indigenous parents, stresses the institutional nature of the challenge faced by Mexico's dying native languages. "We need education reform to build a plan that strengthens and respects these languages," says Toledo, who speaks Zapoteco, an indigenous tongue used along Mexico's eastern coast. "The structure of the Mexican state always pushed a monolingual Spanish education."

Despite being a multilingual country, Mexico has always strongly prioritized Spanish. An education reform bill passed in 2013 sought to overhaul the Mexican education system but failed to challenge the inferior status of native languages. Another bill — a telecommunications reform pushed by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto — enshrined Spanish as the only language to be used in mass communication.

Book in romanized Nahuatl — Source: Nanahuatzin

Even today, many speakers of indigenous languages report fear of discrimination as a major reason for not speaking or promoting their native tongues. "When they hear you speaking an indigenous language they won't think you're bilingual, they'll just think you're indigenous," says Javier Galicia, a Mexico City-based academic and activist for Nahuatl, Mexico's most widely spoken indigenous tongue with 1.5 million speakers. "But if they hear you speak German or English, they'll be in awe."

The few people left who do speak the country’s most at-risk languages are aging and unable to pass the tongues on to future generations. El Universal writes that the National Geography and Statistics Institute (INEGI) often over-estimates the true number of people who still speak indigenous languages. In the heavily indigenous southern state of Chiapas, for example, locals report only 70 speakers of Mocho'. INEGI claims there are 134.

"You don't see many Mocho' speakers around these days," says Hilario, an 85-year-old resident of the city of Motozintla. "People would ask what 'us natives' were talking about, so we stopped speaking it in public."

Speakers of disappearing languages like Mocho', Kiliwa, Oluteco, Odami Tepehuano and Kaqchikel, all of which number less than 100, neglect to promote their languages for fear of racism and discrimination. But there is only one way to save these ancient elements of culture and community from extinction, according to Senator Toledo. "We must be proud to speak our native tongues," he says.