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Native American Languages

Native American languages and the need for interpretation

According to the 2010 census, the American Indian and Alaskan Native (Native American) population was approximately 5.2 million people; this is a combination of people directly identifying as Native American, and people who listed themselves as being Native American combined with one or more races. That same census tells us that 28% of that population group speak a language other than English at home, namely a Native American language, compared with 21% of the rest of the population of the United States.

Understanding Native American languages

Before the arrival of European settlers, Native American tribes were considered semi-independent of one another. Perhaps as a result of their independence of one another, the tribes developed over 300 unique languages in 57 language families. Today, 112 of these Native American languages are still spoken across the United States, with 20 family groups unique to California.

What makes Native American languages difficult to translate?

The difficulty faced by Native American language translators is that while the speaking population of the languages is categorized under two race groups – American Native and Alaskan Native – their languages are not related. Of the 112 Native American languages spoken today, none share common features.

Which languages are most commonly spoken today?

Native American languages are spoken in specific geographical areas, rather than nationwide. That said, each language may contain a number of different dialects that make communication between one another difficult.

  • Navajo

The most widely spoken Native American language is Navajo, with approximately 150,000 speakers. It is spoken by Native Americans based in the American Southwest.

  • Inuit language

Spoken across the arctic region of North America – not limited to the United States – the Inuit language consists of a language-chain of dialects. Approximately 65,000 people speak one dialect or another, with neighboring dialects being comprehensible to one another. 

  • Sioux

Consisting of Dakotan and Lakotan, two languages that differ largely in pronunciation, Sioux is spoken in the western United States and Canada by approximately 50,000 people. It is the most commonly spoken Native American language in North Dakota and South Dakota.

  • Cherokee

Cherokee is considered one of the healthier Native American languages. That said, while the Cherokee population is approximately 350,000, only about 22,000 are speakers. It is mostly spoken in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Cherokee is a rare example of a Native American language to preserve its written form.

  • Yupik

Spoken by 17,000 people in Western Alaska, Yupik is another Native American language that is considered a dialect chain – in the same way as the Inuit language.

  •  Apache

Based largely in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, Apache is spoken by approximately 15,000 people, in two distinct dialects: Eastern Apache and Western Apache. Speakers of the two languages would struggle to understand one another.

How can a Native American language translator help?

Translation services are a vital aspect of communicating with people in a language they understand, without running the risk of creating confusion. In the case of Native American languages, a translator’s role becomes multifaceted and includes the vital responsibility for recognizing how best to interpret the meaning of a message. The translator’s job can be summarized as:

  • Distinguishing between Native American languages 

With regard to cultural sensitivity, it is always important to be aware of the differences between different Native American tribes. As well as enabling clearer communication by use of the correct language, acknowledging and recognizing different languages allows a translator to interpret a message according to a specific tribe’s culture and history.

  • Avoiding confusion and offensive statements 

Given the shared history of Native Americans and those who came to settle in the United States, a vital aspect of a Native American language translator is to interpret communications with sensitivity and empathy. As word-for-word translation isn’t possible, and most of the Native American languages no longer survive in written form, an interpreter assists in phrasing key information in such a way that the recipients can understand it, while avoiding the accidental use of offensive words, or phrasing that may cause confusion.

  • Clarity for your message

One of the key benefits of hiring a Native American language translator is that your message can reach people in more meaningful ways. Clarity is vital in certain industries, from communicating legal or medical information, to issuing public safety statements, or providing context in the classroom. When it comes to speaking to vulnerable people, especially those from marginalized communities, it is important to use a language they understand. Not only will this make the recipient of your message more comfortable, but it can also prevent misinterpretation of metaphor or connotations in speech.

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