Indigenous Languages of the United States

Native American Woman

Indigenous Languages of the United States

Did you know that there are more than 175 indigenous languages spoken in the United States today? That’s more than 350,000 people. The next question is, can you name any of these languages? The American education system doesn’t prioritize learning about indigenous cultures past the tale of the first Thanksgiving. Most Americans have no idea how linguistic diversity contributed to vibrant native cultures. This article will take a closer look at indigenous languages in the US and people’s efforts to save them.

Commonly Spoken Native Languages

Many of the indigenous American languages were lost with European colonization. This is because many Native languages were only oral, not written. When the people who spoke the languages died, the languages died with them. Today, many tribes are worried about losing their language and heritage that comes with it.

The most commonly spoken native languages in the US is Navajo. More than 170,000 people speak Navajo. Native Navajo speakers call this language Diné Bizaad. In Navajo, the word dine means “The People”. Navajo is considered to be one of the most complicated languages to learn. For example, Navajo has 33 consonants and 12 vowel sounds. Plus, Navajo is tonal like the Chinese language family. Many people know about the Navajo language because of the Navajo code talkers. These Native soldiers used indigenous languages to send coded messages in World War II.

The next most-spoken Native language after Navajo is Yupik. Yupik has almost 20,000 speakers and is spoken in Alaska. In addition, Dakota also has almost 20,000 speakers. Dakota is spoken in North and South Dakota. Among the other popular Native languages are Apache, Keres, Cherokee, and Ojibwa.

Native peoples across America speak Native languages. Arizona, Alaska and New Mexico have the most Native language speakers in the US. South Dakota, California, and Oklahoma also have large populations that speak Native languages.

Preservation and Looking to the Future

Today, only one in ten Native people aged between five and seventeen speak a Native language. In comparison, one in five Native people over 65 speak a Native language. In 1972, Congress passed the Indian Education Act. This Act made it legal to teach Native children indigenous languages for the first time. Since then, the preservation, or reclamation, movement has gained momentum. What is this movement? The movement aims to help “revive” dying Native languages.

For example, the Shinnecock tribe in Long Island, New York is working on reviving its language. The Indian nation partnered with Stony Brook University to use historical documents to bring the language back to life. For the first time in 200 years people are speaking the tribal language. Likewise, in Ohio the Miami Nation is being reclaimed. Daryl Baldwin, the director of the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Ohio taught his two children the Myaamia language. These are just two examples from a larger movement. In Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, and Washington Native people are studying their Native languages.

Linguistic diversity is an asset for America. Nowhere else in the world can so many people share their stories freely, and in their native language. Respecting indigenous cultures and Native languages is important to understanding the United States. Acutrans supports linguistic diversity everyday by providing language solutions to our partners. Language access creates equity and a more diverse society. Check out our website for more information on how Acutrans is making a difference.