Indigenous Languages in the United States

  • November 13, 2006
  • Henriette Langdon

One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. Prior to immigrating to the United States, I was vaguely aware of this special American holiday. I am very fond of this celebration because it is symbolic of giving thanks or showing one’s appreciation, something that we often forget to do to others. Thanksgiving is a reminder of giving thanks for a successful harvest that was shared among the Pilgrims, newcomers and Native Americans. Commemorating this event makes us all reflect on history which dates to close to 400 years ago.

When the first immigrants to America landed on its shores, about 300 Indigenous languages were spoken in North America. Today, it is estimated that only 150 of those languages are in existence. Many reasons for language loss that was described in the October ¿Qué Tal? column applies to the survival or death of many of the Indigenous languages in the United States and the world.

Names, family, location and number of speakers of the 10 most widely spoken Indigenous languages spoken in the United States is reported in the table below:

Top Ten Indigenous Languages Spoken in the United States

Language Family Location No. of Speakers
Navajo Na-Dené Southwest 178,000
Dakota Siouan Dakotas, Missouri, Mississippi 18,000
Central Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo-Aleut North Alaska and
North Canda
Cherokee Iroquoian Oklahoma, North Carolina 16,000
Western Apache Na-Dené
(different from Navajo)
Southwest 12,500
Pima Uto-Aztecan
(somewhat related to Nahuatl)
Oregon, Idaho, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona extending to Mexico 12,000
Choctaw Muskogean Louisiana 11,000
Keres Language isolate
(not related to any other language)
New Mexico
(Acoma Pueblo)
Zuni Language isolate
(not related to any other language)
New Mexico (Pueblo in Mc Kinley County) 10,000
Ojibway/Chippewa Algonquian Upper Michigan,
North Dakota

Adapted from Wikipedia –Languages of the United States

You may want to explore names and characteristics of other Indigenous Languages spoken in the world by accessing the Indigenous node of the World Wide Web Virtual Library.

Today a great number of immigrants to the United States come from Mexico, an immediate southern neighboring country, and it is estimated to be at least 30 to 35% of all immigrants. In Mexico, many different Indigenous languages are spoken as well. Being aware of this information assists us in facing some challenges. For example, those of us who live in the neighboring states with Mexico, that includes California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas may need to know that the students and clients we work with may come from communities in Mexico where specific Indigenous languages may be spoken and, therefore, these individuals may not even have proficiency in Spanish. The top ten Indigenous languages spoken in Mexico are described below.

Top Ten Indigenous Languages Spoken in Mexico

Language Family Location
No. of Speakers
Nahuatl Uto-Aztecan Mexico (State), Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Michoacán, Durango, Jalisco. 1.5 million
Yucatec Mayan Mayan Eastern areas of Mexico including Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche as well as Belize. 805,000
Mixtec Oto-Manguean Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, Morelos +/- 500,000
Zapotec Affiliated to Oto-Manguean Oaxaca +/- 500,000
Otomi Oto-Manguean Mexico (state), Puebla, Veracruz, Higaldo, Guanajuato, Querátaro, Tlaxcala 300,000
Totonaco Totonacan Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo +250,000
Mazatec Affiliated to Oto-Manguean Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz about 200,000
Tzotzil Mayan Chiapas 200,000
Tzetzal Mayan Chiapas 200,000
Chol Mayan North of Chiapas +/- 100,000

Adapted from Wikipedia –Language of Mexico

General Observations and Relevance to SLPs:
  • Be aware that some of your students may speak a primarily indigenous language and you need to become familiar with characteristics of the particular language and its culture. Ideally, working with an interpreter will solve the problem but may be difficult to implement. This is applicable to children who were born in the United States or who may have emigrated from Canada or Mexico.
  • Proportionately, there are more speakers of Indigenous languages spoken in Mexico compared to the United States. You will note that the total number of the speakers of Indigenous languages in the United States is only in the vicinity of 290,000 compared to Mexico which has approximately 4.5 million speakers of Indigenous languages. I have to admit this is quite striking, I would have never guessed
Additional References:
  • Estes, J. (1999) .How many indigenous American languages are spoken in the United States?
    By how many speakers? (Reprinted by permission from NCBE). Includes several references as well as tables with lists of number of speakers per language and location where those languages are spoken.
  • Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and promoting American Indian Languages.
    This is a site where the reader can find information on various aspects such as an alphabetical list of Native American languages, Native American books, Linguistic family grouping and much more.

Coming up in December 2006
Speech & Language Services in Guam – A Personal Experience

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

Recent Posts

Together, let’s create brighter futures for culturally diverse students.