andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Thu Nov 6 19:12:20 UTC 2003
Let's ensure Navajo language passes on to future generations
By Lucille Mescale Hunt
Eagle Air Med
Summer has been great and memorable. Now it is time to get ready for
winter activities. In coordinating our efforts for such activities,
verbal language is one very important tool of communication.
Verbal language comes in various tongues and is so powerful that it
motivates us to act or react to everything we do. As children, we
learn to speak a language at a very young age and cannot even
remember how we first learned to say a word or words. Verbal language
begins with data input of words from our parents and those around us.
When our brain received sufficient input we began to make sounds in
an effort to communicate with words.
In the traditional Navajo way, a baby's first laugh is considered its
first word and is celebrated with a prayer and a feast of traditional
foods along with natural salt, which represents old age. At the
celebration everyone wishes the baby a long and prosperous life
reaching into old age, and the baby blesses you with the same wish.
My grandparents and parents taught me that our language is our life.
How we speak to others and how we speak of others represent our
integrity. They taught me to speak well of others and not say
anything unkind because the gods that are listening will take away
Navajo is my first language but I am still learning new words. Every
region on the reservation has its own dialect. I didn't know this
until I visited my aunt in Arizona. One day she asked me to wash the
spoons (adee' táángis). I understood her to mean wash the spoons
only. I wondered why she would ask me to wash the spoons and not the
dishes. I obeyed and washed the spoons.
When she returned she asked me why I hadn't washed the spoons to
which I gladly replied that I had washed the spoons. She was puzzled
and asked me if I understood Navajo. Before I could answer her she
explained to me that "adee' táángis" means to wash the dishes. I
chuckled and told her that to me ádéé' means spoon.
She asked me how I say dishes. I told her it is, _eets'aa'. She
thought that was a funny way of saying dishes because to her it meant
all the pots and pans in her house. I told her that to me adee' meant
a gourd dipper.
Now my aunt teases me that I don't understand Navajo. A dialect in a
language often tells what region a person is from. I was born and
raised in eastern Navajo and therefore speak in the eastern Navajo
When I started school, I began to learn English words by associating
Navajo words with new words in English. For example, when I learned
the word for Kool-aid, I called it tòòl-aid. Because Kool-aid was
made with water I associated the Navajo word for water, tò, and I
pronounced it tòòl-aid.
Another word was flashlight. In those days flashlights were made out
of metal and not plastic. Because it was made out of metal I called
it béésh- light (metal-light).
It was not until about the second year in school that I started to
construct easy sentences in English. At school I was exposed to
television, books, the telephone and the phonograph or record player
for the first time. These are types of communication media.
The English data input began for me as soon as I started school.
Today I am very grateful I can communicate in both the Navajo and
I want to encourage all of you who speak the Navajo language to honor
yourselves by speaking Navajo as your dominant language. The Navajo
language is a beautiful language with its unique sounds and tones.
It is a very descriptive language. It was even used in winning the
Second World War. Tell your stories in Navajo, make someone laugh by
telling your jokes in Navajo, speak Navajo in your home and in
public, value your heritage by speaking Navajo, and empower yourself
by such a Navajo experience.
Navajo is a very hard language to learn. There are many books written
for learning the language, but there are very few 24-hour source
speakers to learn from. A source speaker is a person who is available
for the learner to speak with in the language being learned. In order
to learn a language there must be a fluent speaker with whom you
exchange dialogue. Otherwise the input data of your language will
always be limited. Language is one of those things were you "use it
or lose it."
The majority of our children are growing up knowing very little
Navajo or none at all. I know this because most of my nephews and
nieces speak only English and in some cases poor English.
It is because we are not 24-hour source speakers for them. I realize
that not all Navajos speak fluent Navajo but in preserving our
language, we who speak fluent Navajo need to recommit ourselves to
living our language. We need to be available for our children to
learn our sacred language.
Many grow up wishing they could speak and carry on a conversation
with their grandparents who speak no English at all. And grandparents
wish they could share their sacred traditional stories and songs with
their grandchildren. The traditional stories are more meaningful and
have their greatest impact when they are told in Navajo.
It would be so sad if one day in the future we read in the newspaper
that the last Navajo language speaker has died. It would read on to
say that the once great and powerful Navajo language is now extinct.
This could happen in 50 or more years if we don't do something about
it. It is not too late to speak our Navajo language and pass it on to
our children and grandchildren.
Too much responsibility is being placed on the schools to teach our
children the Navajo language. The schools are doing an excellent job
in trying to help preserve our heritage but it is not enough for us
to depend on the schools to teach our children our language. The
schools should only serve as a support group to family efforts.
I appreciate and commend those who have a strong desire learn and
practice often to communicate in basic Navajo. There are many elderly
Navajo people who do not speak English. They need our help to
interpret and translate for them because they utilize the health
services and other public vendors on the reservation.
May we serve with dignity and respect no matter how little or how
much we are able to speak in the Navajo language.
(Lucille Mescale Hunt operates Eagle Air Med that is based throughout
the Navajo Nation.)
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