Learning a Native American Language

By Paul G on October 28, 2011
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Learning a Native American Language

Why study an Indian language?

For the Indian peoples, tribal languages are important for keeping a strong sense of self-worth, community identity and for keeping their culture strong. For Native American students, knowing their tribal language well improves their self-confidence and helps  (rather than hinders) the learning of non-Indian languages. For people who do not speak Indian languages, learning an Indian  language is not necessary just to speak to Indian people. To some degree, most speak the dominant non-Indian language of the  country they are now apart of, such as English in the United States, English and/or French in Canada, or Spanish in Mexico and Latin America. However, learning an Indian language remains important for gaining a deeper understanding and respect for Native American culture and heritage (especially the ceremonies, songs, and stories) and for sharing that respect with the Indian people.

It is important to note that a few Native American tribes do not wish to share their language with outsiders, as they regard their language and certain  cultural features as private tribal property only. The ideal setting is the Indian home or tribal community setting where elders still  talk with the children. Listening and speaking with fluent speakers is the best way to learn a Native language.

When first meeting fluent speakers— just learn to relax! It is possible that they may frequently use their language in your presence,  but they are doing this because they enjoy their language and are proud of it. Forget the crazy idea that that they are just talking  about you; Chances are that they really have much more important things to do!

When conversing with them in English (or other  European language) be aware that they might have difficulty in translating your speech— so please have patience!  Also, it may be  necessary to avoid idioms and complicated words and to converse slowly and clearly with pauses between sentences. (And unless people have hearing problems, speaking loudly will not help!)

Other options for learning include language CDs (and other materials), online resources, smart phone apps or classes which are now available for some Indian languages. Because CDs are bilingual, most CDs for languages within the U.S. and Canada are designed for English  speakers and for tribes in most other countries of the Americas, most are designed for Spanish speakers. The material  presented and the teaching methods used will vary from author to author, so carefully select the sets you like best, if a choice is available for the language you are studying. In addition, a number of schools and colleges today also offer Indian language courses, especially for the Indian languages in their local areas.

Whether through private study or through a class, learning an Indian language requires lots of study, practice, and commitment. Because these patterns are generally different from those found in European languages, a sentence must have its words rearranged to match the pattern of the desired Indian language before it can be translated.

Start with short sentences. By using either a CD or teacher, start memorizing short sentences using the different word patterns.  Then try variations. In each sentence, substitute one new word at a time. Drill constantly and pay close attention in an effort to: start  thinking in the Native language, build up your Native language vocabulary, compare and learn the word patterns, and gain familiarity with the verbs. Also try recording your own sentences for more drill practice.

The written form of most Native languages is still quite new. Most have only been written for just 100-200 years. So, as yet, standardized spellings for words have generally not been agreed upon by all speakers. Keep this point in mind when using written

Native languages in active everyday use have a number of words of recent origin, like words for “airplane” and  “television.” Generally, these words are compound words that have been made by stringing together two or more older words to identify the new thing or idea. The new words keep the language adapted to the modern Indian life.

Progress may be slow, but your efforts will be rewarded. After several years of hard work, you will become a fluent speaker! It took the missionary Eugene Buechel about 10 years to become fluent in the Lakota language. While a young man in the early 1900s, he  spent as much time as possible among Lakota speakers in South Dakota. At the time, use of Lakota was common “on the street,” but he had few teaching aids available other than what he made for himself. Eventually, he compiled a Lakota-Sioux Dictionary. It was first published after his death in 1970.

Native American Language Resources

Smart Phone Apps




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Source: The Indian Way CD by Mark Thiel

Purchase the Indian Way CD from Noc Bay

TOPICS: Featured, Native American Culture

12 Responses to “Learning a Native American Language”

  1. Kwiko says:

    Sac and Fox have language website…check it out alot of stuff to look at about the sac fox lang…..


  2. Dawn Tucker says:

    Help!….I would like to learn to speak Creek and/or Miccosukee. I am an RN currently in a Masters program to become a family nurse practitioner in Florida and want to work for our Native American Seminoles when I graduate. To care for the elderly I need to speak the language. Can anyone tell me where or how I can learn the language?

  3. marshall jameson says:

    I am a retiree and have a yearning to learn more about the indian language. My grandmother (madian name Fields) was full blooded indian from the applichia mountians- Kentucky. Tho I spent summers there with her as a young boy, my indian heretage was never talked about and I never heard any of my Dad’s people speak their language or comment about any ties to the indian nation. I live in eastern NC and we have patches of Lumbee Indians nearby but I have no connection with any of that community. Can you assist me in getting connected in some way. Any help is greatly appreciated.

  4. peter heys says:

    l have a habit of talking in what appears to be native indian when annoyed what does way nah nichi? mean its most annoying ? even my grandson has commented, and l have no idea what l am saying ?

  5. kiyakii says:

    I need to know how i can become more involed in my cherokee heritage.

  6. Rachel malone says:

    Anything for Karuk Klammath ?

  7. Mary Goodner says:

    I was told that i am half Apache i would like to learn that language if that is part of my back ground my daughter look it up and that is what she found out about my back ground and that i was part of the chief he was my great great grandfather.I just would like to know how to find out all of this.

  8. Megan says:

    i would really like to know how to speak native american i was told that im cherokee and blackfoot.

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