Is Navajo a dying language?
Mar 26, 2008 | 1713 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
by Leo Platero

A recent survey of Native Languages found the just ten native Lipan Apache speakers remain on the Mescalero reservation in southern New Mexico.

Even Navajo, which is spoken by more people than any other American Indian Language in the nation, is spoken fluently by fewer than half of the Navajo children entering kindergarten, according to a University of New Mexico magazine article.

New Mexico Representative Heather Wilson is working with the college to keep American Indian languages alive. Wilson is working to secure $200,000 to establish the American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training Center at UNM.

The center will train instructors and conduct research to help preserve Native American languages. “We’re working to preserve these native languages and this and this UNM program helps accomplish that goal,” Wilson says, “Once lost they will never be recovered.”

I wonder if Utah could have a similar program. In general, schools in the San Juan School District seem to be having an uphill battle in teaching native languages. There are many reasons. One is that the native language is an elective class and parents can sign release forms stating that their child doesn’t need to take a language class.

There is not an urgency to preserve the Navajo language. Some Navajo parents are not reinforcing homework, the practice needed to keep the Navajo language alive. It seems making a living is more important and the sad result is that children are coming to school not knowing their language and having a hard time learning at school.

One Native language teacher’s observation is that parents are the first teachers and schools should be a reinforcement program. Sadly, some parents leave it up to the schools to teach their children Navajo/Ute. Time at school to teach a language is not enough time to learn a language.

When language assessments are given Navajo and Ute children, some are classified NNS – non native speaker, some LNS – limited Native speaker, and some FNS- fluent native speaker.

There are success stories. This year, a thankful grandmother came to one local school to thank the teacher for teaching her grandchildren. One day they stood before her and gave the Pledge of Allegiance in Navajo. They continued to rattle off names of colors, numbers and kinship terms. She was pleasantly surprise and began to cry. It was an “Ah, moment,” Since then their grandfather and grandmother make a point to talk to their grandkids in Navajo.

Richard E. Littlebear, Bilingual Education Advocate, has made this observation:

“We said, ‘Let’s get our language into written form’ and we did, still our Native Language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s make a dictionary for our languages,’ and we did, and still our language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s get linguists trained in our own language’ and we did and still the language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s train our own people who speak our languages to become linguists’ and we did and still our language kept dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s apply for a federal bilingual grant,’ and we did and still our language kept dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s let the schools teach the language,’ and we did and still our language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s develop culturally relevant materials,’ and we did and still our language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s use language masters to teach language,’ and we did, and still our language kept dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s tape record our elders speaking and doing cultural activities,’ and we did, and still our language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s Video tape our elders speaking and doing cultural activities,’ and we did, and still our language kept on dying.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s put our native language on CD-ROM,’ and we did, and still our language kept on dying.

“Finally, someone will say, ‘Let’s flash-freeze the remaining speakers of our language so when technology catches up these speakers can be thawed-out and revived, then we will have ready-made Native American Language speakers.”

In the meanwhile here are a few ideas to help preserve native languages.

1. Parents, teachers, community members, including non-native speaker who know the language to converse with school children and other native people in the area.

2. Tune to KTNN –660 around 7:45 for the, “Navajo word of the day.”

3. Encourage your elementary children to take Navajo/Ute and be there and come and visit the schools, and attend their Native Cultural Week.
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