Language is an important component of what defines the Nez Perce as a people. Place names, for example, describe physical characteristics of the site or events that took place there. When songs and stories are translated into English, the subtlety of the stories is lost.
Until the arrival of Protestant Missionaries in the 1830s, language was learned orally. The first Christian missionaries who came to Nez Perce country studied the language and wrote some of the first grammars and vocabulary lists. Missionaries used their new tools to translate religious tracts, hymnals, and books of the Bible into Nez Perce. To further the progress of assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream society, boarding schools ruthlessly forbid speaking native languages.
Nez Perce was traditionally learned orally. As as a result, the number of native speakers declined. To help recover what was lost and stave off extinction, ethnographers and linguists have continued to study Nez Perce and help preserve it. Native speakers on the Nez Perce Reservation and among the Joseph Band on the Colville Reservation have created vibrant language programs to teach the young and non-native speakers Nez Perce.
Linguists identify Nez Perce as part of the Sahaptian language group which encompasses much of central Washington state and north central Idaho. It is still spoken and taught on the Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla Reservations.