10 Facts About Mexico

Country Is World's Most Populous Spanish-Speaking Nation

With a population of around 123 million and the vast majority of them speaking Spanish, Mexico has by far the world's greatest population of Spanish speakers — more than twice as many as live in Spain. As such, it shapes the language and is a popular place for studying Spanish. If you're a student of Spanish, here are some details about the country that will be useful to know:

Nearly Everyone Speaks Spanish

Fine Arts Palace in Mexico
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace) at night in Mexico City. Eneas De Troya/Creative Commons.

Like many Latin American countries, Mexico continues to have a significant number of people who speak indigenous languages, but Spanish has become dominant. It is the de facto national language, spoken at home exclusively by about 93 percent of the people. Another 6 percent speak both Spanish and an indigenous language, while just 1 percent don't speak Spanish.

The most common indigenous language is Nahuatl, part of the Aztec language family, spoken by about 1.4 million. Around 500,000 speak one of several varieties of Mixtec, and others living on the Yucatán Peninsula and near the Guatemalan border speak various Mayan dialects.

The literacy rate (ages 15 and above) is 95 percent.

English is widely used in tourist areas, particularly along the U.S. border and at ocean resorts.

Forget About Using 'Vosotros'

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Mexican Spanish grammar is that vosotros, the second-person plural form of "you," has all but disappeared in favor of ustedes. In other words, even family members speaking to each other in the plural use ustedes instead of vosotros.

Although vosotros isn't used, it is still understood because of literature, the presence of publications and entertainment from Spain.

In the singular, friends and family members use  with each other as in most of the Spanish-speaking world. Vos may be heard in some areas close to Guatemala.

'Z' and 'S' Sound Alike

Many of the early residents of Mexico came from Southern Spain, so the Spanish of Mexico developed largely from the Spanish of that region. One of the main pronunciation characteristics that developed is that the z sound — also used by the c when it comes before i or e — came to be pronounced like the s, which is much like the "s" of English. So a word such as zona sounds like "SOH-nah" rather than the "THOH-nah" common in Spain.

Mexican Spanish Gave English Dozens of Words

Mexican rodeo
Rodeo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Bud Ellison/Creative Commons.

Since much of the U.S. Southwest previously was part of Mexico, Spanish once was the dominant language there. Many of the words people used became part of English. Well over 100 common words entered American English from Mexico, many of them related to ranching, geological features and foods. Among these loanwords: armadillo, bronco, buckaroo (from vaquero), canyon (cañón), chihuahua, chili (chile), chocolate, garbanzo, guerrilla, incomunicado, mosquito, oregano (orégano), piña colada, rodeo, taco, tortilla.

Mexico Sets the Standard for Spanish

The Mexican flag
The Mexican flag flies over Mexico City. Iivangm/Creative Commons.

Although there are many regional variations in the Spanish of Latin America, the Spanish of Mexico, particularly of Mexico City, is often seen as a standard. International websites and industrial manuals often gear their Latin American content to the language of Mexico, partly because of its large population and partly because of the role Mexico plays in international trade.

Also, just as in the United States many speakers in mass communications such as the national TV networks use a Midwestern accent that is considered neutral, in Mexico the accent of its capital city is considered neutral.

Spanish Schools Abound

Mexico has dozens of immersion language schools that cater to foreigners, especially residents of the U.S. and Europe. Most schools are located in colonial cities other than Mexico City and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Popular destinations include Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Cuernavaca, the Cancún area, Puerto Vallarta, Ensenada and Mérida. Most are in safe residential or downtown areas.

Most schools offer instruction in small-group classes, often with the possibility of getting college credit. One-on-one instruction is sometimes offered but is more expensive than in countries with a lower cost of living. Many schools offer programs geared toward people of certain occupations such as health care and international business. Nearly all immersion schools offer the option of a home stay.

Packages including tuition, room and board typically begin at around $400 U.S. per week in the interior cities, with costs higher on the coasts.

Mexico Is Generally Safe for Travelers

hotel in Los Cabos, Mexico
Hotel pool in Los Cabos, Mexico. Ken Bosma/Creative Commons.

In recent years, drug trafficking, drug gang conflicts and government efforts against them have resulted in violence that has approached that of a small-scale civil war in parts of the country. Thousands have been murdered or targeted for crimes that include robbery and kidnaping. With very few exceptions, however, hostilities have not reached the areas most popular with tourists. Also, there have been very few foreigners targeted. Danger zones include some rural areas and some major highways.

A good place to check for safety reports is the U.S. State Department. As of when this article was written, the department's most recent advisory had issued no warnings for the most popular designations including the Cancún area, the federal district of Mexico City, and the main tourist areas of Acapulco — and many other destinations were problematic mostly at night or outside city limits.

Most Mexicans Live in Cities

Although many of the popular images of Mexico are of its rural life — in fact, the English word "ranch" comes from Mexican Spanish rancho — about 80 percent of the people live in urban areas. With a population of 21 million, Mexico City is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. Other large cities include Guadalajara at 4 million and the border city of Tijuana at 2 million.

About Half the People Live in Poverty

Guanajuato, Mexico
An afternoon in Guanajuato, Mexico. Bud Ellison/Creative Commons.

Although Mexico's employment rate (2014) was under 5 percent, wages are low and underemployment is rampant. The U.S. government (2012) estimates that the poverty rate at 47 to 52 percent depending on the definition used.

Per capita income is about a third that of the U.S. Income distribution is unequal: The bottom 10 percent of the population has 2 percent of the income, while the top 10 percent has more than a third of the income.

Mexico Has a Rich History

Aztec mask from Mexico
An Aztec mask on display in Mexico City. Photo by Dennis Jarvis; licensed via Creative Commons.

Long before the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the early 16th century, the area known as Mexico was dominated by a series of societies including the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. The Zapotecs developed the city of Teotihuac´n, which at its peak had a population of 200,000 people. The pyramids at Teotihuac´n are one of Mexico's most popular tourist attractions, and numerous other archaeological sites are well-known — or waiting to be discovered — throughout the country.

Spaniard conqueror Hernán Cortés arrived at Veracruz on the Atlantic Coast in 1519 and overpowered the Aztecs two years later. Spanish diseases wiped out millions of the indigenous residents, who had no natural immunity to them. The Spaniards remained in control until Mexico gained its independence in 1821. After decades of internal oppression and international conflicts, the bloody Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 led to an era of single-party rule that continued until the late 20th century.

Mexico continues to struggle with poverty, although its joining of the North American Free Trade Association in 1994 appears to have strengthened its economy.

Sources

Statistical information in this article comes from the CIA Factbook and the Ethnologue Database.