Peru is a multilingual nation, dominated by Spanish but home to a multitude of indigenous tongues. The nation’s linguistic complexity is apparent in Article 48 of the Political Constitution of Peru, which makes allowances for the nation’s various languages:
“Official languages of the State are Spanish and, wherever they are predominant, Quechua, Aymara and other native tongues in accordance with the law.”
Approximately 84% of the Peruvian population speaks Spanish (known as castellano or español), making it by far the most widely spoken language in Peru. It is also the principal language of the Peruvian government, the media and the education system.
Spanish-speaking travelers in Peru will come across some slight regional variations in the language, such as changes in pronunciation and common expressions. As with so many things in Peru, these variations correspond with the nation’s three geographic regions of coast, mountains and jungle. A coastal resident of Lima, for example, can normally identify a Peruvian from the jungle by his or her way of speaking.
Quechua is the second most common language in Peru and the most widely spoken native language. It is spoken by about 13% of the population, primarily in the central and southern highland regions of Peru. Quechua was the language of the Inca Empire; it existed long before the Incas came to power, but their use and promotion of the language helped it spread -- and remain strong -- in the Andean regions of Peru.
Many subdivisions exist within the Quechua language family, to that extent that some Quechua-speakers find it hard to communicate with those from different regions. A member of a Quechua community in Northern Peru, for example, may struggle to communicate clearly with someone from Cusco or Puno.
There are less than half a million Aymara-speakers in Peru (about 1.7% of the population), but it remains the nation’s third most spoken language. The number of speakers has dwindled over the centuries, having struggled against Quechua and then Spanish.
In modern Peru, Aymara-speakers are located almost entirely in the extreme south, along the border with Bolivia and around Lake Titicaca (the Uros people of the floating islands speak Aymara). The language is more widely spoken in Bolivia, which has about two million Aymara speakers.
Other Indigenous Languages of Peru
It is to the east of the Andes that Peru’s linguistic complexity reaches its peak. The Amazon region is home to at least 13 ethnolinguistic groups, each containing further subdivisions of native languages. The jungle department of Loreto, the largest of Peru’s administrative regions, contains the greatest diversity of native languages.
In total, the remaining indigenous languages of Peru -- such as Aguaruna, Asháninka and Shipibo -- are spoken by less than 1% of the Peruvian population. Of the Peruvians that do speak an indigenous language, including Quechua and Aymara, the majority are bilingual (they also speak Spanish).