Over thirty Mayan languages are spoken today, descendants of a common ancestral language Proto-Mayan, which was spoken in the western highlands of Guatemala as late as 4,000 years ago. The Mayan languages of modern times are as different from one another as European languages are from each other. For example, a Q’anjob’al speaker with only knowledge of his native tongue will not understand K’iche’ or Yucatec.
The study of indigenous languages was important for the Spanish settlers in New Spain. Many clergy became proficient in Mayan languages in order to evangelize. They developed orthographies to transcribe the languages with the Latin alphabet. Some Maya learned to write their languages alphabetically from the Catholic missionaries, although the ruling Spanish forcibly ended hieroglyphic writing, which had persisted in northern Yucatán.
In the nation-state era, Spanish became the official language of Mexico and the Central American nations; for the colony of British Honduras, it was English. Speakers of Mayan languages were at a disadvantage as governments grew and extended their functions. In El Salvador, policy eliminated Mayan languages.
The 1990s were years of political change that affected the status of indigenous languages in Mesoamerica. With the Peace Accords of 1996, Guatemala officially recognized twenty-three indigenous languages, although instruction in them remains limited due to restricted resources.
While Spanish continues as the official language of Mexico, Yucatec Maya, the language of close to one million speakers, is taught in bilingual schools, and there is now Mayan-language instruction for primary school teachers at the university level in Yucatán.
In 2012, the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill celebrated its twentieth anniversary year.