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Why Learn Native American Languages

Many Native American languages are endangered; however, despite ongoing challenges and setbacks, the struggle of American Indian and Alaska Native communities for the legal right to maintain their languages and cultures has been won for the most part.

The U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA) in 1990—declaring it the policy of the United States to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages. Since then, multiple federal task forces and conferences dedicated to the promotion and protection of Native American languages have been convened. Today, Native American language immersion programs for K-12 learners continue to grow, and several universities offer Native American Languages and Linguistics programs.

Here are some reasons why it’s important to support and learn Native American languages:

Time is of the Essence: It’s Now or Never!

The Census Bureau’s 2006 – 2010 American Community Survey reports 169 active Native North American languages, spoken by a population of fewer than 400,000 American residents. Of these 169 languages, Navajo is the most prevalent (with approximately 170,000 speakers). No other indigenous language currently has more than 20,000 U.S. speakers; in fact, of the remaining languages, only Yupik, Dakota, Apache, Keres, Cherokee, and Choctaw have more than 10,000 speakers nationwide. Languages contain generations of wisdom, going back into antiquity. Many of the keys to the psychological, social, and physical survival of humankind may well be lost if we allow languages and cultures die.

The Importance of Heritage Languages to Young Learners

The cognitive benefits of early bilingualism and learning a heritage language in addition to English from a young age are well-documented. Students who begin to learn another language as children are able to complete longer learning sequences and develop better pronunciation than peers who begin later in life.

With NALA, Congress found convincing evidence that student achievement and performance, community and school pride, and educational opportunity are clearly and directly tied to respect for, and support of, the first language of the child. In fact, a U.S. Department of Education study affirms that native-language use in schools does not hold children back. In seeking to preserve their cultural heritage, tribes are not rejecting the importance of English language instruction for their children. Many American Indians and Alaska Natives have sought to follow a bilingual “English Plus” philosophy that will preserve their heritages while also allowing their children access to jobs in the non-Indian world.

Video: How to Revive a Native American Language

Stronger Families, Communities, and Cultural Appreciation

Giving young Natives the opportunity to keep or learn their tribal language offers them a strong antidote to the culture clash many of them are experiencing but cannot verbalize. If along with the language, they learn to recognize the hidden network of cultural values that permeates their native language, they will add to the knowledge and skills required to “walk in two worlds.” They will learn to recognize and cope with cross-cultural values that are often at odds with each other, and they will begin to adopt more comfortably the cultural value that is appropriate for a particular cultural situation.

Video: Students Learn Chippewa and Blackfoot Languages to Better Understand their Culture and Community

Read & Watch

For those with roots outside of the Native American community, learning an indigenous language allows valuable insight into Native American culture and history. This new perspective and respect promotes tolerance and empathy, and allows speakers to act as cultural ambassadors when interacting with others. Those who live in regions with large Native American populations (such as in the states of Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico, among others) also benefit from stronger communication with the people in their neighborhoods—including local business owners and community leaders.

Adapted from Jon Reyhner’s “Rationale and Needs for Stabilizing Indigenous Languages”

Scholarships and Grants

Be sure to check with local community, religious, or tribal organizations—as well as your college language department—about resources to fund your studies. Multiple organizations have scholarships dedicated specifically to heritage learners and students of Native American descent.

American Indian College Fund Scholarships

The Fund provides scholarships to Native American and Alaska Native students attending tribal and non-tribal colleges.

American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) Scholarships

AIEF awards scholarships to more than 200 students each year.

American Indian Graduate Center (AIGC) Scholarships

AIGC grants a variety of undergraduate and graduate awards yearly, each with its own criteria.

Udall Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship

The Foundation awards funding to college sophomores and juniors working toward careers in policy, health, and environmental issues.

The Northern California Indian Development Council has also curated an extensive list of regional and national scholarships available to students of Native American descent.

Looking for a Native American Languages Program?

While initially developed to report language enrollment figures, the MLA database provides a comprehensive listing of postsecondary language programs, allowing you to refine your results by language, geographic area, and/or type of institution. The data is based on MLA’s 2013 survey.

To Get Started:

  1. Select your language(s), up to eight
  2. Narrow your search, as desired, and click “search now”
  3. Expand your findings to reveal specific schools offering programs in your language by clicking on the small triangles on your results page