Paraguay’s 2 Official Languages

Paraguay is one of three countries in the Americas that name one or more indigenous languages as official, alongside Spanish. Interestingly, it is also the country where the most non-indigenous people are bilingual in an indigenous language, in this case Guaraní. Over 5 million people in Paraguay speak it. The 2012 census determined that 64% of the population speak both Guaraní and Spanish. As of 1992, the bilingual status of the country was added to the Constitution. The Constitution is bilingual, as are many textbooks. Not all indigenous people in Paraguay are Guaraní however, there are 50,000 people of eight additional tribes with their own languages. Those do not have official status.

In the map below, we see that no Central American or Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries are officially bilingual. In South America, Perú, Bolivia, and Paraguay have stripes to indicate more than one official language. Brazil and Argentina have regions that are bilingual.

Map of Languages in Central and South America Image: Jakub Marian, jakubmarian.com

The word Guaraní was a name the Spanish gave this dominant indigenous tribe, thought to be from the word for warrior in the indigenous language. These original inhabitants of what would be Paraguay called themselves avá, or the people. You may be surprised to learn that more than a dozen Guaraní words were imported into English. Most came to English through Portuguese or French.

  • Animals: jaguar, cougar and tapir
  • Fish: piranha
  • Birds: macaw and toucan
  • Foods: cashew, manioc, açai, and tapioca
  • Two more words you might not guess: maraca and petunia

The words Paraguay and Uruguay are also from Guaraní, although their meanings are disputed. They both refer to rivers. The original -guaí ending means to or from water. The Guaraní people live in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil. The colloquial Guaraní commonly spoken in Paraguay which adds in Spanish vocabulary as well, is called jopará or yopará.

Women are credited with preserving the indigenous language which has finally earned an authorized ranking. Raising the majority of children to speak Guaraní is a well-established custom in Paraguay. Neither this language tradition nor official status has shielded indigenous people from prejudice and scornful attitudes from wealthy ethnically Spanish families. However, despite a lot of pressure the language and culture have largely survived. That is an amazing feat accomplished by centuries of resistance.

A toast to generations of caregivers, singing and speaking to their children in their mother tongue in spite of the European language lurking just outside their door!

Thanks for reading. Please stop by the comments and let us know what thoughts this post brought to mind. ¡Gracias y olé! –Rebecca

Guaraní Girl and Boy Photo: Tatiana Sapateiro
Rebecca Cuningham

19 thoughts on “Paraguay’s 2 Official Languages

      1. I think they had the Constitution written in Maya or Nahuátl… TBH, I have very mixed feelings about that. It can be a disguised way to maintain the poor in their -poor- indigenous way. The case goes with Purepecha or Zapoteca. There is still a significant proportion who don’t speak Spanish. That means no education. Illiteracy among indigenous women is high…
        Another example: Breton was “kicked out” of Brittany by the French teachers. They’d punish the little Breton kids they heard speak at school break. So Breton is almost disappeared now, except for the music and songs. But, those teachers taught us how to read or write… (Hard choice)

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  1. Thanks. This is quite fascinating. In my ignorance, I thought that Spanish and Portuguese had largely superseded indigenous languages, and it’s wonderful that this is not so. Thank you, women of South America, for keeping your cultural heritage alive! Even those of us who’ll never even hear it, much less speak it would be the poorer if these languages disappear. Where would we be without piranhas, toucans and petunias?

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    1. I appreciate your comments, Margaret. I am also glad for the fortitude of the mothers and grandmothers in continuing to speak their indigenous languages despite great obstacles. I share your opinion that maintaining the variety of languages is important to reflect our expression of what it is to be human.

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    1. I appreciate your comments and compliment, Rosaliene. I do admire the tenacity of the Guaraní, who’ve paddled upstream for centuries in the river of Spanish. Two official languages for the country is an achievement to be rightly proud of, I’d say.

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  2. Little is known of Paraguay to outsiders, especially of their multilingual culture. I’d heard about the country’s several official languages, but that was the extent of it. Very happy to see that it’s the women who pass on the language, and that Guaraní is still alive and kicking today! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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    1. Paraguay does not seem to be on people’s radar as a travel destination. The photos are beautiful, all that incredible wildlife we use Guaraní words to name. The bilingual nation is a tribute to the women who kept using their traditional language at home, in the market and in worship. They are the warriors who keep Guaraní alive.

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  3. Just reading this post and truly appreciate !I am Paraguayan. Not much people know about Paraguay because it is not a popular tourist destination, but the Paraguayan culture, language and food is amazing! I have not been to Paraguay in 5 years and miss it!

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    1. Hola y bienvenida! Thank you very much for your comments. They mean so much to me. I am so happy that you liked the post on Paraguay. How is your bilingual mom journey going? Did you find a bilingual preschool for your son (or is he at home due to Covid?) Is your little girl starting to speak Spanish too? Abrazos a la distancia, Rebecca

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      1. Hola!

        Yes both my kids are at home now due to covid but my son will be starting kindergarten in September. Our school district has a dual language program where the kids can learn both in English and Spanish ! My little girl speaks Spanish and English as well! Thank you for asking!

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      2. Wonderful that your son can start bilingual kindergarten in the fall! We sent our child to bilingual kindergarten and it was great. Then in first grade they learned to read in Spanish. That was a real gift, because the letter sounds make sense. Saludos, R

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