Native American Language Families

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11943

One of the things that distinguishes us from animals is complex language. Language can both unite and divide us. Using Native American languages as examples, learn how languages can reveal our roots!


United States, World Cultures

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you know any words in a foreign language? Do you know any words in a foreign language that sound kind of like the same word in English? Why might that be?

When a baby is born, excited family members will try to decide who the baby most looks like.

"He has his dad's nose!" some will say. "His hair is definitely from his mom's side, though!" others will exclaim. People use physical resemblances to make connections with other family members. This is a fun game, but there is serious science behind it, of course — the science of genetics.

Linguists, or people who study languages, do pretty much the same thing. Instead of looking for physical similarities between languages, though, they might look for similar sounds or grammar rules for clues. In fact, just like in the example above, linguists call the groupings of related languages families.

Learn more about the science of linguistics and the ways linguists group languages into families by watching How languages evolve – Alex Gendler (TEDEd, below). As you watch the video, write down information and ideas to answer the following questions:

  • How did we end up with so many different languages?
  • How do linguists figure out which languages are related?
  • What are the problems linguists face when building language family trees?

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Now, reflect on the following questions and discuss with your parent or teacher:

  • What are some languages you think might be related to one another?
  • What are some languages you are pretty sure are unrelated, or only distantly related?
  • How did you reach those conclusions?

Language families can help historians understand how different cultures and groups of people are related to one another. They can also help students of language understand other languages related to ones they already know.

In the Got It? section, apply your knowledge of language families to investigate the languages of various Native American tribes.

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