Non-fluent native speakers of Navajo

Marc Ettlinger marc at
Wed Feb 9 18:34:07 UTC 2011

I find the anecdote below fascinating - that L1 speakers of Navajo may
not be considered fluent well into adulthood.
Is there any actual evidence that this isn't simply a "kids these days
mangle the language" type of comment (which you'd probably get from
old English speakers commenting on whether American teens speak
English correctly, as well) or something having to do with the
influence of language contact on younger learners?

More generally, I'd be curious to hear about any evidence of people
still learning their first language past their teens that isn't simply
an instance of language change.

People generally write about language decline in older speakers - if
there are cases where adults are still learning, I imagine it's been
written up somewhere?


Message: 7
Date: Wed, 09 Feb 2011 10:39:34 -0700
From: Tom Givon <tgivon at>
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Roseta Stone: Redux
To: john at
Cc: funknet at, "A. Katz" <amnfn at>
Message-ID: <4D52D156.4030509 at>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed

Right on, John. And one could make a prediction--hopefully someday to be
tested by acquisition studies--that Navajo kids will not master the
fully complexcity of the Athabaskan verb by age 10, or 15, or 20. I once
reviewed a grammar in Papua New Guniea of a language that had comparable
complexity on the verb (three positions, 6-8 categoriers each, massive
zeroing & morphonemic). I had to ask Carle Whitehead--is this guy for
real? He said, yes, he's been in the island for 20 years, really knows
his stuff. So I asked the guy--at what age are kids considered
fuill-fledged speakers? He said-- the old people say, don't listen to
anybody under forty, they don't know how to speak.  In my work with the
Utes, one exchange has stuck out, an elder (ka-para'ni-wa-t, he's not
walking about any more) who was pointed to me as the best orator in the
tribe. I told him that, and he said: "Oh, I am nothing. You should have
heard the Old Ones; when they spoke, you could see it all in front of
your eyes". Part of it is due to the complex Ute deictic system, which
invades NPs, ADVs & the verb. The combinations, and the subtle choices
of when to combine the deictic particle with other categories, are a
whole wond(e)rous world. Cheers,  TG


Marc Ettlinger
Postdoctoral Researcher
Northwestern University Institute of Neuroscience
2240 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL, 60208
marc at

More information about the Funknet mailing list