Saving Native Languages

Old illustration of a Pilgrim woman serving food to Natives
Photo by Jxson on Flickr

We all know how the autumn of 1620 and that big Thanksgiving dinner went down for Native Americans in what is now Massachusetts. They could never have guessed in their wildest nightmares just what a bad day it was when they first set eyes on the Pilgrims stepping off the Mayflower. Native languages haven’t fared so well since then either.

Legend tells us that the event took place at Plymouth Rock, which today after centuries of transporting and souvenir-hunting is now only a small chunk of its former self, although history records state that the Pilgrims first made a pit stop in Cape Cod (doesn’t everybody?)  before they touched Plymouth.

The Native languages throughout Turtle Island (what we now call North America) have gone down from 300 to 175 since 1620, and many are on the languages endangered species list. The same pattern is seen around the world, although there have been a few creative attempts to keep Native languages alive, like the new translation of the Disney movie Moana for Tahitians, whose language has been on life support for many years. In fact, that translation for the carefully produced historically and culturally sensitive movie was planned from the get-go.

Last year an ambitious project launched by National Geographic, a movie titled Saints & Strangers, told the story of the first Thanksgiving from the viewpoint of the Natives. Many pains were taken to make the movie as historically and linguistically correct as possible but there’s still disagreement as to how successful that was; nevertheless, for better or for worse, the Native actors playing Natives in the movie (itself a milestone for an industry that has historically cast anyone other than Natives in such roles) all spoke their dialogue in the western Abenaki language, coached to be as linguistically close as possible. Abenaki is only spoken by about twelve people today and this movie was an attempt to keep it alive and encourage interest in others, particularly those of Abenaki descent, to learn it.

Of the least-spoken languages anywhere in the world, just about all of them are Native languages.

Native Languages in North America

One quick note about language, an extremely sensitive issue with differing vocabulary on this continent: In Canada, Native communities are referred to as bands and in the United States they’re still largely called tribes (it’s not an insult to Native Americans), so for now we will refer to Canadian natives as bands or First Nations who live on reserves and to American groups as tribes who live on reservations.

There are several initiatives underway on both sides of the border to preserve dying Native languages. In Canada, Simon Fraser University’s First Nations Language Centre works to preserve and revivify dying Native languages. They received a large grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada for the seven-year project. On many reserves, only the few elders left speak their indigenous languages and they and others who struggle to keep those languages alive are trying to engage Native youth to learn them along with the cultures from which they’ve become cut off.

Related: 50 Awesome Language Facts

In the United States, Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education works to keep Native languages alive in the American Southwest. They’ve developed partnerships with organizations like the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe which strives, among other objectives, to preserve the celebratory bird songs of the Mojave people. The songs transmit their values and culture and include special words only used in those songs.

Some Native language immersion programs have gotten some impetus from the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006 which requires, among other things, the existence and support of language services and immersion schools such as:

The right and entitlement to use their own languages was not granted to Native Americans until the Native American Languages Act of 1990.

Some have argued against the importance of preserving endangered languages in general and others have argued passionately for the opposite. Sonny Skyhawk, however, answers the question “Why Should We Keep Tribal Languages Alive?” on the Indian News Network website:

Language can teach us respect, for ourselves and each other, our elders, women and most importantly, the things that allowed us to exist. Our children deserve nothing less than to have inherited their own language. You could argue that when a tribe loses its language, it loses a piece of its inner-most being, a part of its soul or spirit. That is how important and meaningful our languages are to us as the original inhabitants of this hemisphere.”



Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company who believes living languages are better than dead languages and hopes to help everyone communicate with greater accuracy and for lower cost than regular machine translation. For more information please contact or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.


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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn

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