Teacher Notes on Linguistic Diversity


This activity can be done as a class if the map is projected onto a screen or in small groups if printed in color handouts. Students looking at this map without any preparation might wonder where English (or Spanish or French) is on the map, so it will be important to let them know that this is a map that theorizes about the range of Native languages prior to European contact.

Potential Student Observations 

  • Students might notice lots more language families on the west coast, covering smaller geographic areas.

  • There may have been just as many distinct language families on the eastern part of the country, but the factors that led to the decrease of Native Americans (disease and warfare) also led to the decrease, of course, of their languages. The western part of the continent was settled by Europeans and other non-Natives later; thus, we have more knowledge of the languages and the many language families.

  • Students might also notice vast areas with a single family. A large geographic region with a single language family does not necessarily mean that there are a lot of speakers of the languages in that region. Many of those areas have very low population. Climates and bioregions play a role here too.  For example, the dry Great Basin of eastern Oregon is a relatively difficult region to make a living in, with less edible plants and wildlife per square mile.

  • Likewise, they might confuse area with power. One student suggested that “the main people might have a lot of words.”

  • Students might notice the white uninhabited/unknown areas. The white areas are marked “uninhabited” or “unknown” now, though these were likely inhabited by Native Americans prior to European contact. However, we have no information about the languages, language families, or the people who lived there because adequate records were not kept.

Geographic Isolation

Geographic factors can affect language divisions, keeping neighboring groups of speakers from others. A mountain range or a river might divide one group of speakers from another. Established traditional hunting or fishing grounds might keep groups of speakers separate. Even today, rivers separate speakers of one dialect from speakers of another. (The Connecticut River separates “pahk the cah” speakers from “park the car” speakers in Massachusetts.)

          Where did language come from? And when did it start? Did it happen all at once or more gradually, in stages? Is there such a thing as a single language from which all languages descend - a “mother tongue?” These are all questions that we humans are very curious about, but they are all impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. Teachers might want to stick to one factor—geographic isolation. Mountainous regions of the world isolate human populations and in doing so create opportunities for linguistic divergence. The Caucasus and the island of Papua New Guinea are two such linguistically diverse regions. Terrain plays a role here in the Pacific Northwest, as well, and rivers become vectors for language dissemination. The mapping exercise will help students focus on the geography of the PNW.


How many languages are there in the world?

Realize that the large Indo-European language family, containing about 450 languages, is one of some 115 language families in the world, resulting in about 7,000 languages spoken and signed today. When we look at this vast number of language families, containing thousands of languages, you may wonder how they all came about. People seemed to have always wondered that; most cultures of the world have myths about the origin of language as well as how and why languages change and vary, such as “The Origin of Different Languages” tale.