There are 574 recognized Native Nations in the United States alone. Despite the violence of colonization and assimilation, many indigenous peoples in North America have successfully preserved their languages. The variety, uniqueness and complexity of these languages are incredible. In this article, we cover the history and usage of the various Native American languages, and – if you’re interested in learning one yourself – we share some resources for you to check out.
A history of resilience
The history of indigenous (non-European) languages around the world is a history of colonization, suppression and resilience.
Prior to European colonization, it was estimated that there were between 8 and 112 million people living in the Americas. In North America, there were an estimated 300 unique languages spoken. But over the course of the next 100 years, up to 90% of the indigenous population was killed through disease, war and enslavement.
In the United States and Canada, there were systematic efforts by the state to suppress native cultures and destroy native languages. A boarding school system was established to isolate Native children and assimilate them into the dominant culture of the Christian religion and the English language.
Native children were forcibly removed from their families and punished for speaking their native tongues. There were an estimated 150,000 children in boarding schools in Canada and a total of 367 boarding schools in the United States. The trauma and cultural damage are intergenerational and ongoing.
How many Native American languages are there in the US now? Through resistance and resilience, over 150 indigenous languages remain in North America. There are initiatives and language schools designed to preserve and revive these languages.
Most common Native American languages
Let’s look at the most spoken Native American languages in the United States.
Here is a list of the top 10 indigenous languages spoken in the United States according to the US census:
|Indigenous language||# speakers|
Let’s look at the top 4 most-spoken Native American languages and learn some basic phrases from each.
‘Ōlelo Hawai’i is the Hawaiian language. It is an indigenous language of the United States since Hawaii became US territory in 1900. There are 327,000 speakers of the language and growing. Thanks to preservation and restoration initiatives, the number of speakers of the Hawaiian language increased by 28% from 2009 to 2013. February is Hawaiian language month.
- Hi. How are you? – Aloha. Pehea ‘oe?
Diné Bizaad is the Navajo language. There are 170,000 speakers of Navajo, mostly in the southwestern United States of Arizona and New Mexico. Diné Bizaad is known for being an especially difficult language to learn. It was so isolated that the US military used Diné Bizaad speakers to send secret codes during WWII. The Navajo code talkers are celebrated as heroes. The Diné Bizaad-based code was the only code during WWII that was never broken.
- Hi. How are you? – Yah’eh-teh’. Hait’áo naniná?
The state of Alaska is home to over 20 native languages. Central Yup’ik is the most spoken Native American language in Alaska with 10,000 speakers. Most of the Yup’ik speakers are located in the southwestern region of Alaska. The language is closely related to Siberian Yupik in the far northwest of Russia.
- Hi. How are you? – Waqaa, cangacit?
Dakhótiyapi is the Dakota language spoken by nearly 19,000 people. There are 5 other sub-branches of Dakota spoken throughout Canada and the central United States.
- Hi. How are you? – Háu (male)/haŋ (female). Toked yauŋ he?
Learn a Native American language
What can we do to preserve and promote native languages?
Learn a language. There are plenty of language schools that teach Hawaiian, Navajo, Dakota and more. By supporting these schools or YouTube channels, learners help drive the demand and sustain such programs.
Follow activists and resources on social media:
- Nupepa Hawaii – a Hawaiian language newspaper
- Navajo Times – a Diné newspaper
- IllumiNative – visibility of native peoples
Existence is resistance
Indigenous peoples have managed to preserve and continue speaking their languages despite systematic attempts at erasure. As a result, many are spoken widely today. You can support native languages by learning them, following resources on social media, and educating yourself.
Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.