Language Education Policy Studies
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      Indigenous Languages 

The term Indigenous is often used for people who inhabited lands prior to European colonization, necessitating decolonization in many areas- social, political, legal. This includes the Americas, Australia and the Pacific (including New Zealand and other smaller islands), India, and Africa. The purpose of this section is to put some parameters around the concept of Indigenous languages first by exploring the notion of “Indigenous” and second by understanding the nature of the languages in comparison with non-Indigenous (European) languages.

First, there are structural and ontological differences, illuminating problems of translation and relativisation. Indigenous languages, first, should be considered in a holistic sense, as an integral and non-detachable part of traditional Indigenous education which in turn is not detachable from culture, identity, and history.

Second, when comparing Indigenous languages with European languages, the first aspect is their status, often endangered; and numbers, representing up to 90% of the world’s languages. The language shift in this case, if complete, means the loss of corpus, rather than only a group shift, such as the case with other minority languages that have speakers elswhere, such as Chinese minorities who have immigrated to the United States. 


Brokensha, D. W., Warren, D. M., & Werner, O. (1980). Indigenous knowledge systems and development. University Press of America.


Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the mountain: An ecology of indigenous education. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.


Hill, J. H. (2001). Dimensions of Attrition in Language Death. In L. Maffi (Ed.), On Biocultural Diversity: linking language, knowledge, and the environment (pp. 175-189). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press (discusses questions of structural and lexical loss of language)


Henze, R., & Davis, K. A. (1999). Authenticity and identity: Lessons from indigenous language education. Anthropology & education quarterly, 30(1), 3-21.


Hornberger, N. (1996). Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


McQuown, N. A. (1955). The indigenous languages of Latin America. American Anthropologist, 57(3), 501-570.


Peat, F. D. (2002). Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press. (same comment as Cajete above)


Reyhner, J. A. (1997). Teaching indigenous languages. Northern Arizona University, Center for Excellence in Education.


Silver, S., & Miller, W. R. (2000). American Indian Languages: Cultural and Social Contexts. University of Arizona Press. (helpful to consider language without the nation-state construct and critique of Duchene et al above)


Singerman, R. (1996). Indigenous Languages of the Americas: A Bibliography of Dissertations and Theses.


Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). Indigenousness, human rights, ethnicity, language, and power. In O. Garcia, & G. Schweid Fishman (Eds). Cultural Autonomy and Fishmanian Sociolinguistics. Special issue of The International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 213, 87-104.


Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed books.


UNESCO. (2012). UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Retrieved December 16, 2012, from UNESCO:


Walsh, M. (2005). Will Indigenous languages survive?. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 34, 293-315.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K.  M. (2013). Indigenous Languages. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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