My research interests focus on the language maintenance situation of Totonac, an indigenous language spoken in the east-central Sierra of Mexico. External economic and political pressures to use Spanish interact with particular socio-psychological attitudes towards Totonac and Spanish, influencing the different maintenance situations of each unique ethnolinguistic community (village). This process has recently accelerated as integration with majority society continues to intensify. As previous research has shown, indigenous peoples in Mexico are subordinated, marginalized and ridiculed by majority Spanish-speaking society and some speakers or communities assimilate to avoid discrimination for speaking dialecto, the vernacular term for indigenous languages in Mexico (Beck & Lam 2008, Lam 2009, Lam 2012, Lastra 2001, McGraw 2009, Terborg et al. 2007). Interestingly, despite these common pressures across Mexico, there are varying language maintenance situations found across different villages, and some communities have shown resistance to language shift (Cifuentes & Moctezuma 2006). It is necessary to examine speakers' linguistic ideologies–beliefs about language(s) (Kroskrity 2005, Woolard & Schieffelin 1994)–to fully understand language use in a given community.

Totonac women in traditional dress in Cuetzalan, 2008.

In Chicontla and Patla, Lam finds that parents feel shame when speaking Totonac, Totonac is not seen as useful, and bilingualism is believed to jeopardize childrens' competence in Spanish (2009, 2012). Although Totonac is valued as a link to their heritage, this has not been enough for language maintenance. In my Master’s research conducted in Ozelonacaxtla, however, results were different from Lam's (McGraw 2009). Totonac is still learned in the home, spoken by children amongst themselves, and valued for its local meaning. The majority of the community functions in Totonac, except at church and in school, and there are few outsiders. The small proportion of bilingual speakers in Ozelonacaxtla report some of the same negative ideologies as in Chicontla and Patla, however many bilingual speakers who show preference for Spanish have lived outside the village for extended periods of time in Puebla or Mexico City. In Ozelonacaxtla, Spanish use has not spread substantially over the village in either public domains or in the home (McGraw 2009). The different ideologies towards Totonac across villages have direct implications for language use: there is far less Totonac spoken in Chicontla and Patla than in Ozelonacaxtla.

A view of Ozelonacaxtla, Puebla, 2008.

Future research will be undertaken in the community of Huehuetla, the political centre of the municipality of Huehuetla, to which Ozelonacaxtla also belongs. In Huehuetla, there is a sizeable proportion of non-indigenous people. However, unlike in Ozelonacaxtla, Chicontla, and Patla, where the Totonac have embraced some of the negative ideologies that the non-indigenous people have towards them, my preliminary observations in Huehuetla have revealed that the marginalized Totonac have become somewhat politically vocal. It remains to be seen whether the different socio-political context has had repercussions for Totonac language maintenance in Huehuetla. For this reason, the comparison of Huehuetla with previous research will provide useful insight into why some indigenous languages in Mexico enjoy greater vitality than others. 

In addition, I will be considering not only the ideologies of the parents but also those of children, given they play a key role in the survival of a language as the next competent speakers (Fishman 1991). Most studies on shift and maintenance have focused mainly on the parents, as they are the transmitters of the language (Schieffelin & Ochs 1986). However, Meek (2007) and Lam (2010) have shown that children do not always share their parents’ ideologies towards the indigenous language, but rather they are capable of forming their own, sometimes markedly distinct, beliefs about the value of their heritage language. Thus, comparing across generations that may not share the same ideologies is a vital component for characterizing the intergenerational process of language shift and for creating more successful language revitalization efforts.

Totonac dancers in costumes representing birds, Cuetzalan, 2008.


Beck, D. & Lam, Y. (2008). Language loss and linguistic suicide: A case study from the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. In S. Cummins, B. Jankowski & P. Shaw (Eds.), All the things that you are: A festschrift for Jack Chambers. Toronto: Toronto Working Papers in Linguisitcs. pp. 5-16.

Cifuentes, B., & Moctezuma, J. (2006). The Mexican indigenous languages and the national census: 1970-2000. In M. Hidalgo (Ed.), Mexican Indigenous Languages at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 191-245.

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Kroskrity, P. (2005). Language Ideologies. In A. Duranti (Ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Blackwell Publishing: Blackwell Reference Online, Accessed May 25, 2010.

Lam, Y. (2009). The straw that broke the language's back: Language shift in the Upper Necaxa Valley of Mexico. International Journal of the Sociology of Language,195, pp. 219-233.

Lam, Y. (2010). “Language ideologies across generations in two Totonac communities.” Presented at the Cuarto Simposio sobre Política de Lenguaje [Fourth Symposium on Politics of Language], Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mérida, Mexico, October 2010.

Lam, Y. (2012). Oportunidad, ideologia y la perdida del totonaco del Río Necaxa [Opportunity, ideology and the loss of Upper Necaxa Totonac]. In P. Levy & D. Beck (Eds.), Las lenguas totonacas y tepehuas: Textos y otros materiales para su estudio. Mexico City, Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, pp. 519-543.

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McGraw, R. (2009). Language attitudes and opportunities for speaking a minority language: What lies ahead for Ozelonacaxtla Totonac? Master's Thesis, University of Alberta.

Meek, B. (2007). Respecting the language of elders: Ideological shift and linguistic discontinuity in a northern Athapascan community. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 17(1), pp. 23-43. 

Schieffelin, B. & Ochs, E. (1986). Language socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15, pp. 163-191.

Terborg, R., García Landa, L. & Moore, P. (2007). The language situation in Mexico. In R. Baldauf & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Language planning and policy in Latin America. Clevedon; Buffalo: Multilingual Matters, pp. 115-217.

Woolard, K. & Schieffelin, B. (1994). Language ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, pp. 55-82.

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