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There are some 30 languages spoken in Bolivia, including Spanish (the country’s official language, with over 60% of the population claiming it as primary) and numerous indigenous dialects that relate to tribe, region and descent. Second to Spanish is Quechua, spoken by 25% of Bolivians, and Aymara is third with almost 15%.



As in the rest of South America (Brazil excluded), Spanish dominates as Bolivia’s primary language. Despite the extremely high indigenous population here, the 16th century colonization by the Spanish did enough damage to push local languages to considerably low numbers, and at points throughout history, at risk for extinction. Spanish in Bolivia is distinctly Andean. This is to say that it is spoken slowly, the accent creates long words, stressing vowels and not cutting out syllables or sounds, as other Spanish dialects do. While Spanish slang is affected by surrounding countries (You may notice the Argentinean “sh” or Colombian “j” for the basic “ll” sound), most of the language here is pure highland pronunciation and thus a good spot to to start learning. For new speakers, or even experienced not coming from the area, it’s help to know a few Bolivian Spanish tricks. First, Bolivians use the diminutive suffix (“-ito” or “-ita”) on practically every other word. It’s likely you will get used to hearing aguita for water and pesito when talking about currency. Also, some Bolivians have a habit of confusing or omitting articles (example: “el” or “la” for “the”), since the Aymara language does not use them. For speakers who use Spanish as a second language (Aymara as the first), the usage can be a bit confusing.



Quechua is spoken throughout most of the Andes, mainly by indigenous tribes in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and of course, Bolivia (In fact, Bolivia is host to the largest Quecha-speaking population in the world!). There are some 10 million total speakers and around 46 different dialects; it is considered the most widely used language in the Americas’ indigenous community. In Bolivia, you will most often hear Quechua in the highlands, though there are some outposts in lowland Amazon Basin areas--a consequence of migration, rather than origin. It is understood that Quechua most likely began in Central Peru, in the inland mountains at about the same latitude as Lima, and spread both north and south throughout the first and second centuries, and then with rule of the Inca Empire in the 1400s and late 1500s. There was a time when Quechua looked as if extinction was not far off, as it is largely unwritten, a predominately rural language that was loosing itself to Spanish influence more and more with time. However, the last 40 years or so have seen strong indigenous movements and political support growing a revival of the indigenous language.



Similar to Quechua, Aymara is a tribal language seeing a rise in support. With the current indigenous-supported Socialist president, Evo Morales, elements of Aymara culture (such as the coca leaf, tribal gods and recognition of the importance of the tribe’s spoken-word) have been brought to the forefront of Bolivian culture as a whole. What’s more, along with some 30 other indigenous languages, Aymara was introduced and officially recognized in schools throughout Bolivia in the 1994 National Education Reform. While traveling throughout the country, despite the fact that only 15% of the population speaks Aymara, you will undoubtedly be surprised by it’s prevalence in local lives. This could be because the main concentration of Aymara communities (and thus, Aymara speaking Bolivians), is in the extremely touristed area of Lake Titicaca and its lowland Altiplano basin (through Rio Desaguadero and into Lake Poopo). There are some two million Aymara in all of Bolivia (500 thousand in Peru and 20 thousand in Chile).



By Margaret Rode
A self-professed city girl, sassy staff writer Margaret Rode hails from Chicago where she received Bachelor degrees in English Literature and Spanish...
18 Jun 2009

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