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What Is an Indigenous Language?

E. Reeder
E. Reeder

An indigenous language is one spoken by natives of a particular area or region. It typically starts being called an indigenous language once people from other continents who speak other languages have settled and become the majority population. A language that is defined as indigenous, therefore, would be considered a minority language, because it is no longer spoken by the majority of inhabitants of a country. The new language sometimes becomes the official language of the country, while the native language or languages either disappear entirely or are relegated to minority status with few native speakers remaining. This has happened all over the world, in places as diverse as America, Australia, Colombia and Nigeria.

One example of indigenous languages that have become minority languages or, in some cases, died out entirely can be found in America. The country used to be home to many different Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee and the Sioux, each of which spoke a different indigenous language. Over time, as settlers from England took over beginning in the 1600s, many Native Americans from the different tribes were either killed or forced to assimilate, giving up their native languages and cultural roots in many cases. Today, while some tribes still exist, speak their indigenous languages and retain their cultural heritage, many tribes have vanished or have few members. Some Native American languages indigenous to America have either disappeared entirely or have only a very few fluent speakers left.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Of the more than 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world, many are expected to die out within the next 100 years if no action is taken to save them. There are movements and organizations devoted to the preservation of indigenous language and native cultural heritage. Some of these movements are working to record examples of indigenous language that only have a few elderly fluent speakers left; the languages will no longer exist if they are not recorded before those speakers die. Indigenous languages can be saved for future generations by producing written and audio records of them, translation materials and textbooks. Some programs also pair up children and adults who want to learn the indigenous languages with the remaining fluent speakers of those languages so the language and the cultural heritage of the indigenous speakers will live on in new speakers.

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