Indigenous Languages of North & South America

It all began when I gathered too much information about the history of the English language while I built my History Behind Beowulf in my TpT store. I was really enjoying learning so much about English but most of the information would never make the final resource. I packaged it and created a separate resource.

This led me to learn about the history behind some of Africa’s languages which got me thinking about the indigenous languages of North and South America.

I knew that Navajo was still a language that was spoken. It is an option in Duolingo (which I highly recommend). Other than that, I wasn’t certain how many other indigenous languages were spoken in North America and if I could find enough information to create a resource for them.

The short answer is there are many more languages still spoken today than I would have guessed (albeit most are critically endangered) and I was surprised how many extinct languages I could find information about.

Why are historic/extinct languages important?

I have always wondered what languages different civilizations spoke throughout history. Some of course we know but for others, the question puzzled me.

And even if we know the language, is it the same? If you time-traveled back to 500 AD in England, you’d probably be speaking English but which one? Old English or Middle English? Would you be using Latin letters or runes? How did Old English become Middle English? And when? These were all questions I had and wanted answered.

The same holds true for indigenous languages. Did they have their own writing systems? When did they develop?

Many indigenous languages changed due to the political and military climate well before Europeans arrived. Cherokee is a great example of this change in North America and Aymara and Quechua are examples of this in South America. Aymara was the dominant language before the Incas dominated politically and Quechua took over.

Once Europeans arrived there was obviously a lot of language change. Many of the indigenous languages became extinct and we only have European historical records to study. The languages of the Caribbean were extinct within a hundred years of the Spanish arrival.

It was interesting to learn how understudied the indigenous languages of South America were. Linguists aren’t even sure how many of the languages are even related and right now, South America has one of the highest rates of languages isolates.

But there are fortunately still many indigenous languages remaining. It isn’t without effort that they are still here and many languages are taking active steps to maintain their languages. But it was a fascinating journey and one I hope you will consider sharing in your classroom.

How do I use these?

You could present one language at a time. Make it a weekly Friday lesson to get your class started.

The information is presented in a series of infographics to help drive student engagement with the information. I didn’t want to present it in a long written document because it can be difficult. Print the languages out and create a display in your classroom for students to look at. Create a lesson around them.

It doesn’t really matter how you present it so long as you present it. These cultures deserve attention in our history/social studies classrooms too.


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