Painting of Sequoyah (circa 1770–1843), inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.

Unpacking Linguistic Imperialism and Protecting Indigenous Languages

Linguistic imperialism refers to prejudicial or oppressive treatment based on how an individual uses language (such as accents, phrasing, code-switching, loan words, and colloquialisms). Examples of this can be seen in specific work settings, education systems, and marketing. Members of the same race or ethnicity can also face linguistic discrimination.

As it is widely known, many of the United States’ Indigenous languages are critically endangered, which has detrimental effects on Indigenous communities and their sense of identity, cultural heritage, and tradition. John Baugh notes the enduring presence of linguistic profiling and other forms of linguistic discrimination as experienced in the United States, citing the first works published on the subject in the late 1960s-early 1970s, attributing advances in technology, the advent of global expansionism, and multinational immigration as key factors in “accelerated circumstances where diverse human factions may use linguistic (dis)similarities as one of several means through which individuals formulate perceptual boundaries between groups that are familiar or unfamiliar” (para 1). Similarly, the studies of Preston (1989) and Squires and Chadwick (2006) both describe explicit accounts of discriminatory sentiments or actions based on the perceived “legitimacy” of standardized structure and grammar, separate from that of English, as a result of stereotypes regarding foreign languages and an individual’s national origin.

Linguistic Discrimination in the U.S. and Mexico

Native Americans, and minority groups generally, have suffered from linguistic discrimination throughout colonial history, particularly in the U.S. and other colonizing nations of the world. The U.S. does not have an official language, and while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, the nation’s language policies are shaped by historical and linguistic hierarchies that have resulted in tremendous differences in education, culture, and economic prosperity between different groups of people.

Black-and-white photo of Native American children and boarding school.
Over 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle between 1879 and 1918. There were only 158 graduates. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Linguistic discrimination is not unique to a single category or experience; many Indigenous communities and people of color have been unfairly subjected to offensive assumptions regarding their education, income, and work ethic due to disparate perceptions in the media and social implications. The persistence of these language policies shows the need for extensive linguistic reforms for Native Americans in the U.S. – especially the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in Western North Carolina – and other minority populations in relation to the dominant Anglo-American population. Throughout the U.S., and on a global scale, “language education policies have been one powerful mechanism for the eradication of Indigenous and other minoritized mother tongues” (McCarty & Nicholas 107).

An indigenous woman stands at a podium. On the right, text from her speech is translated into Spanish.
An excerpt of Yásnaya Aguilar’s speech translated into Spanish and displayed on a screenshot. Image Credit: “Our Languages Are Not Dying” (Aguilar Gil & Breytman).

Put into perspective, speakers of indigenous languages make up 6.5 percent of the global population (Aguilar Gil & Breytman para 5). “Spanish has now become the dominant language,” states Mixe linguist and activist Yásnaya Aguilar. “Two centuries ago, Náhuatl, Maya, Mayo, Tepehua, Tepehuano, Mixe, and all of the indigenous languages were in the majority, but have now become the minority… The State made arduous efforts to impose a forced Castilianization, with the goal of eradicating our languages, above all starting from the school system… Our languages are not dying, they are being killed” (Aguilar Gil & Breytman paras 5, 8, 10).

Aguilar’s strong exposé of historical injustices and discrimination in Mexico is not a singular reflection. Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota artist and poet, and Juanita Pahdopony, a member of the Comanche Nation, both address the U.S.’s historically egregious relationships with their respective people and communities, breaking the barriers of overwhelming silence that hang over the lives, cultures, and lands marred by centuries of generational trauma.

Headshot of Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota artist and poet.
Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota poet, artist, and activist. Image Credit: Griffin Poetry Prize.

It’s here we roll along the pavement into hills of conversation we share a ride we share a country but live in alternate nations and here I must tell them what they don’t know or, should I? Should I is the moment to seize and before I know it I say Well you know Native people as in tribes as in “people” living over there are people with their own nations each with its own government and flag they rise to their own national songs and sing in their own languages, even. And by there I mean here all around us I remind them. Drifting in side-glances to whirring trees through the van windows then back to me they dig in they unearth the golden question My God how come we were never taught this in our schools? (Long Soldier stanza 13).

Headshot of Juanita Pahdopony, Comanche educator, poet, and artist.
Juanita Pahdopony, Comanche educator, poet, and artist. Image Credit: Portland Museum.

A long time ago

when animals

could talk,

the language

of the people

was spoken,

sweet–like sugar.

Today, few speak


its loss — a bitter lesson.

That is all (Pahdopony 158).

The excerpts above reflect and allude both to America’s history of violence and genocide against Indigenous peoples and to the cultural ignorance many Americans have regarding the colonial roots of their country – and by extension, the existence of the atrocities that continue to impact Native American communities. A former colony country where dominant whites hold linguistic, financial, and cultural privileges, the U.S. has maintained a history of oppression. The Oglala, Comanche, Cherokee, and other tribal nations have been unwillingly associated with longstanding misconceptions and stereotypes based on popular culture and other historically-based propaganda, particularly when contrasted with “civilized” American and European governments.

The 18th-20th centuries were characterized by sentiments like these, and Sarah Rivett’s research shows the longstanding notion persists to some degree when it comes to Indigenous language usage and legitimacy. Moreover, the discovery of “confused and often contradictory attempts at classifying languages and their speakers reveal Europeans’ efforts at control and their failure to achieve it, even as they occasionally alluded to Native understandings of linguistic relationships” (Harvey & Rivett 446). At the same time, however, it should be noted that efforts were made to preserve Indian tongues even as colonialism worked to erase them; the historical significance of language encounters — i.e., documented taxonomy and translation efforts, the acknowledgment of various literacies such as the syllabary invented by Sequoyah, and the resistance such innovations provided against Euro-American attempts to enforce linguistic imperialism — attest to the long-standing archives and material history of American Indian languages, thereby providing a glimpse into the central role their native tongues played in their individual cultures and communities.

Painting of Sequoyah (circa 1770–1843), inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.
Sequoyah (circa 1770–1843), inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Although scholars, linguists, and activists have all made various efforts to reevaluate and dismantle the impact of colonialism and the white-majority leanings of modern society on Indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities, these discriminatory practices’ scars and behaviors have left on Native philology cannot be understated or overlooked.

The Cherokee Nation, in particular, has been devastated by the legacy of colonialism and linguistic discrimination. In 2007, records indicated that the vitality of the Cherokee language was severely endangered, “spoken by about 1,000 in North Carolina, [and] by about 10,000 in Oklahoma” (UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger). By 2020, the number of fluent Cherokee speakers in Oklahoma was recorded to have dropped to a mere 2,000 out of a national population of 380,000 citizens, a grim statistic further exacerbated by the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic (Thorpe and Burda para 1). As Thorpe and Burda report, steps have been made to provide Cherokee speakers with mobile solutions to prevent further degradation of the ancient language, leading to a partnership between Verizon and Howard Paden, who leads the Oklahoma tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.

Likewise, Ellen Cushman (Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University and citizen of the Cherokee Nation) advocates using technology and digital resources to preserve Indigenous languages. Nonetheless, she cautions against imposing modern Western values on the translation and transcription process for three reasons: “(1) the item is taken from its context of use; (2) it is no longer understood in relation to the stories that place the item in its context and in relation to the people who use it; and (3) the people who would ostensibly have uses for the item are necessarily presumed to be no longer living” (Cushman 116). These concerns are valid in academic, ethical, and global terms, since preservation work requires considerable rhetorical, contextual, and ideological skill. Additionally, whether Indigenous texts are presented orally or digitally, colonial viewpoints and infringements can sneak in. Therefore, to preserve Indigenous languages and eliminate imperialism, promoting endorsement efforts and bolstering Anglo/Indigenous relations requires considerable knowledge of Indigenous heterogony (linguistic, cultural, etc.).

Linguistic Discrimination in Europe

The struggle of Indigenous peoples to keep their traditions, languages, and cultures alive in the post-colonial world is not just confined to the Americas. Historically, similar preservation movements have taken place among Scottish and Irish Travellers, migrant groups whose native languages of Shelta and Beurla Reagaird (a regional language hybrid of Gaelic and Romani) have gradually disappeared due to the forced assimilation and settlement acts that took off during the 1940s and 50s, preventing nomadism and forcibly removing and expelling children from their families, “rehabilitating” them in local and government-run institutions in Canada and Australia (“Minority Within a Minority,” “Shipped Abroad”). Despite the geographic distance between the U.S. and the U.K., there are striking parallels between the Carlisle Institute and other Indigenous “boarding schools” in the U.S.

Items related to the Sámi, the indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, are displayed in an exhibit at the Hokkaido Museum.
Items related to the Sámi, the indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, are displayed in an exhibit at the Hokkaido Museum. Image Credit: The Japan Times.

Outakoski, Cocq, and Steggo (2018) report that similar language reclamation efforts have been conducted by the Sámi, an Indigenous people in Northern Europe with a population estimated between 50,000 and 100,00, with the assistance of technology and social media platforms. At most, 30,000 Sámi are observed to have some connection to their native languages and traditional culture. Still, as a result of longstanding assimilative policies and other socially oppressive/discriminatory ideologies, “the number of people who actually speak Sámi and use the language daily is less than 15,000” (Outakoski, Cocq, & Steggo 23).

The introduction of user-generated content and mobile applications into classrooms, professional settings, and other domains is key to promoting awareness of threatened languages and winning positive changes in attitudes. This is particularly true for the use of languages on social media, such as Twitter and YouTube. Outakowski, Cocq, and Steggo also found the impact of virtual blogs to be widespread, as they “encouraged readers to participate in a dialogue in their native language… and explored a world closed to many young Sámi who needed to read and share their own thoughts on a sensitive topic” (25-26). Using their professional experiences and observations on technology as a tool to revive and reclaim Indigenous language claims, Outakowski, Cocq, and Steggo recognized the need for new language and cultural policies covering Sámi and non-Sámi contexts alike, with four main criteria:

  1. Learning and teaching in Indigenous communities belong to a long-lasting language revitalization and decolonization process. The challenges experienced in a revitalization context are different from those experienced in majority language development contexts.
  2. In long-lasting Indigenous projects, the focus of innovativeness is often directed towards the learning and teaching processes or the development of tools, materials, and technological solutions for promotion of such processes. Products and results of projects are merely seen as a phase in the acquisition of the means for language maintenance, development, and revitalization.
  3. Many of the Indigenous innovation solutions are designed for the community members and are, therefore, often non-profit and non-commercial. The principle of sharing, underscored in other Indigenous contexts (e.g., Tuhiwai Smith, 2012: 162), is often central and motivates the choice of non-commercial platforms and tools.
  4. Community engagement is a central prerequisite for successful language and culture revival efforts and should, therefore, be considered as an important part of any Indigenous social media–supported learning initiatives. Community engagement is necessary in order to ensure culturally sensitive, relevant, and ethically acceptable resources. Successful models ought to be local, emic, and culturally embedded, based on the needs identified by the community, created for the community members (28).

In light of these facts, there is little reason to believe that Indigenous languages’ status and vitality have not been exposed to pro-white implicit biases over time. A number of these dialects and language groups have been adversely affected by linguistic discrimination, othering, and profiling, especially in societies and contexts that foster “English-only” movements. Analyzing the problems caused by linguistic imperialism is imperative for three fundamental reasons:

  1. Pre-existing power structures and longstanding racial stereotypes can lead to sociopolitical conflicts. Subsequently, the problems Indigenous peoples and other minorities face when dealing with these marginalizations are compounded if intolerant attitudes about language difference prompt exploitation, domination, or judgment at the expense of others who choose to use a language other than English.
  2. It is crucial to consider multiple solutions in which these complex issues can be resolved, whether it be raising global/regional awareness of linguistic applications and accessibility, starting new conversations about colonial and indigenous languages, or embarking on future research on culture-dependent linguistic ideologies.
  3. The prevailing legacy of familial/cultural influence on characteristics and use of speech further contributes to the linguistic prejudice and disenfranchisement of minority groups.


Ultimately, to protect and promote the cultures and languages of Indigenous peoples and non-majority ethnic populations and potentially avoid repeating past injustices, it is recommended that language rights are responsibly discussed and studied, which would reduce the unequal boundaries of U.S. language policies.


“’Shipped Abroad to Work’ – Scottish Inquiry to Investigate the Forced Migration of Children.” Travellers Times, 6 Mar. 2020,

“’We Are a Minority within a Minority’ – Indigenous Highland Travellers Call out for Recognition.” Travellers Times, 28 Oct. 2020,

“UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,

Aguilar Gil, Yásnaya E., and Marianna Breytman. “‘Our Languages Are Not Dying, They Are Being Killed.’” Global Voices, The Bridge, 15 Apr. 2019,

Baugh, John. Linguistic Profiling and Language-Based Discrimination. Oxford University Press, 2021, doi:10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0267.

Cushman, Ellen. “Language Perseverance and Translation of Cherokee Documents.” College English, vol. 82, no. 1, 2019, pp. 115-134. ProQuest,

Harvey, Sean P, and Sarah Rivett. “Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World.” Early American Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, 2017, pp. 442–473. JSTOR,

Long Soldier, Layli. “WHEREAS.” Poetry Foundation, Jan. 2017,

McCarty, Teresa L., and Sheilah E. Nicholas. “Reclaiming Indigenous Languages: A Reconsideration of the Roles and Responsibilities of Schools.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 38, no. 1, 2014, pp. 106-136.

Outakoski, Hanna, Coppelie Cocq, and Peter Steggo. “Strengthening Indigenous Languages in the Digital Age: Social Media-Supported Learning in Sapmi.” Media International Australia Incorporating Culture & Policy, vol. 169, no. 1, 2018, pp. 21-31.

Pahdopony, Juanita. “Taa Numu Tekwa Huruunu/The Loss of Our Language.” Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Adele Hedge Coke, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, p. 158.  

Preston, Dennis R. Perceptual Dialectology: Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics. vol. 7, De Gruyter, Inc, Berlin/Boston, 1989.

Squires, Gregory D., and Jan Chadwick. “Linguistic Profiling: A Continuing Tradition of Discrimination in the Home Insurance Industry?” Urban Affairs Review (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), vol. 41, no. 3, 2006, pp. 400-415.

Thorpe, Najuma, and Juli Burda. “Preserving Cherokee Nation Language through Technology: Mobile Solutions Serve Tribal Elders and Protect their Sacred Language.” NASDAQ OMX’s News Release Distribution Channel, Jun 15, 2020. ProQuest,

Leave a Reply