In what seems like good news for Native American languages, the US Census Bureau has reported that 169,000 people speak Navajo.
That figure makes it the Native American language that’s most spoken in homes, but should be treated with caution. For a start, the survey didn’t measure fluency levels – it just asked if a language other than English was spoken in the home.
Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, a Navajo professor at Northern Arizona University, said the figure recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau is no surprise, but can be misleading. The country’s population of Navajos is well over 300,000. For every one who speaks the language, one doesn’t — and those are likely younger Navajos, Yazzie said.
“Navajo has the largest population, they say, of Native speakers, but it also has the largest population of non-speakers,” she said Wednesday. “And it kind of presents a skewed picture.”
The figure is based on five-year estimates from community surveys that allowed the Census for the first time to study small segments of the U.S. population. The Census found in a study released this month that fewer than a half-million people age 5 and over speak a Native American language at home. About 65 percent of them are in nine counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska. (Source: ABC News)
In good news for Native American languages, Google has made Cherokee a “searchable” language.
Although Google won’t translate Cherokee websites into English or English websites into Cherokee, content written in Cherokee can now be found using the search engine. An on-screen keyboard will allow characters to be typed in the Cherokee alphabet, known as the “syllabary”. The development comes after Google spent over a year working with translators from the Cherokee Nation.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith hailed it as a major victory in the tribe’s battle to preserve its ancient language.
“Language is like a muscle. It has to be exercised in order to stay healthy and grow stronger,” Smith told the Tulsa World.
“This is one more tool for people, especially young people, to exercise their language.”
“No one really knows how much content is out there because it’s never been searchable before,” he said.
“This will make what is already there more accessible, and at the same time, it will be an incentive to create more Cherokee content.” (Source: Tulsa World)
After yesterday’s post on New York’s linguistic diversity, I was pointed to a follow-up post on the New York Times’ City Room blog. This post wondered what the least-spoken languages are in New York.
As they point out, no data is available for the city itself, but the census’ American Community Survey has statewide figures for the question “what languages other than English do you speak at home?” These were the least common answers:
- Cayuga: 6 speakers.
- Eskimo languages: 7.
- Delaware: 9.
- Iroquois: 10.
- Kusaiean (spoken on Kosrae Island, Micronesia): 10.
- Mohave: 13.
- Algonquin: 13.
- Kachin (spoken in northeast Myanmar) : 22.
- Pangasinan (spoken in northwest Philippines): 22.
- Pidgin: 22.
- Zuni: 24.
- Kazakh: 26.
- Faroese (spoken on the Faroe islands off Denmark): 27.
- Inupik (an Eskimo language): 29.
- Cajun: 31.
- Achinese (spoken in Aceh, western Sumatra): 32.
- Mayan: 35.
- Tungus (spoken in Siberia and northeastern China): 36.
- Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in parts of Switzerland): 39.
- Ponapean (spoken on Pohnpei Island, Micronesia): 40.
- Muskogee: 40.
It’s interesting that Native American languages such as Iroquois and Algonquin are just as scarce as Kusaiean, a language spoken in Micronesia, a place most people would struggle to point out on a map (it’s north of Papua New Guinea and east of the Philippines, if you’re looking). And they are more scarce than Pangasinan, spoken in the northwest Philippines, and Kazakh, possibly only recognisable from the fictional character (and movie) Borat.
Should there be more of a focus on indigenous languages in America?