Online classes help preserve the Navajo language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Mar 6 17:21:01 UTC 2009

 Online Classes Help Preserve the Navajo Language A virtual high school lets
students study a tongue that has a dwindling pool of teachers -- and
by Chris Colin <>
[image: 1-10 in Navajo]
[image: audio symbol] *Listen*: Learn to count to ten in Navajo:

Ron Singer counts in Navajo, with English translation.

Running Time: 0:40 sec.

*Click on arrow to start*

When high school junior Reed Witherspoon heard about the Chief Manuelito
Scholarship for high-achieving Navajo students, she knew she wanted it. Not
only did the scholarship offer $7,000 a year for college but it also came
with a requirement she was happy to fulfill: To be eligible, she'd have to
take courses on Navajo language and government. The return to her roots --
Witherspoon has two grandparents who speak Navajo -- would make her family
happy, and it would be a small step toward keeping an endangered language
from disappearing. The problem was finding a way to study the language in
the first place.
Rare Resource

Signing up for Navajo isn't like enrolling in a French class. The tribe has
scattered around the country to the point where nearly half its population
now lives off the Navajo Nation reservation, which covers parts of Arizona,
New Mexico, and Utah. Witherspoon lives in Montana, and she doesn't know of
a single other Navajo student at her school. As the pool of potential
teachers dwindles with each generation, the problem facing Witherspoon and
other would-be Navajo-language students comes down to simple numbers: too
few speakers spread out over too many miles.

Enter the American Academy <>, an online
high school that offers classes in both Navajo language and Navajo
government, among other subjects. For the first time, students around the
country don't need to locate a nearby teacher or wait for sufficient
interest to build up at their school. On the contrary, a student can be the
only person for a thousand miles interested in learning Navajo. All it takes
is Internet access and a weakness for agglutinative languages.

"Navajo is one of our most popular classes, out of 233," says Rebekah
Richards, the American Academy's senior vice president of academic affairs
and the virtual school's principal. "When you have a subject for which you
need to have such expertise, and there just aren't enough people with that
expertise, you can leverage a tool such as online education to cross a large
geographic distance."

The teacher doing the leveraging is Ron Singer, a Utah resident who grew up
on the reservation. Singer's primary work is private security; teaching
Navajo a few hours each week for the American Academy is "more like a
hobby," he says. "It's a dying language," Singer notes. "My own kids don't
speak it. This class is designed to help keep it from disappearing. Our
language is how we keep our culture and tradition intact."
High Tech, Low Trouble

Neither the teacher nor students need anything higher tech than a computer
with basic Internet access: Singer's primary tools are email and voicemail
messages. He'll send out the latest vocabulary lesson -- on body parts,
numbers, family relations, or colors or textures, for instance -- to his
students, who later take a written test online.
[image: Ron Singer] Planting a seed:

Audio recording and email help Ron Singer teach Navajo to younger
generations so that the number of people speaking the language may grow.
Credit: Courtesy of Alex Koritz
When it comes to teaching pronunciation, Singer makes a voice recording,
which the students can access online. The students, in turn, make recordings
of their own by leaving voicemail messages at a designated phone number,
which Singer assesses. All together, the classes involve 12 written tests
and as many oral tests.

For her part, Witherspoon says the format works well for a motivated student
already enrolled at a traditional high school during the day. "For people
who work better on their own, it's great," she says. "If you put your mind
to it, you can probably get even more done this way; you're not waiting for
other students. In that way, it's more one-on-one."

It would be premature to say the class, which has about 50 students, will
single-handedly restore Navajo to linguistic prominence. But Richards says
the feedback has been strong, and the implications are broad. Around 550 of
the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100 people, and about 200 are
spoken by fewer than 10 people, according to the National Virtual
Translation Center <>.

The late Peter Ladefoged, a professor at the University of California at Los
Angeles and a leading authority on endangered languages until his death in
2006, predicted that half the languages in existence today will be gone
within a century -- a common assessment in the field. If modern civilization
helped bring so many ancient tongues to the brink of extinction, it might
just produce the technology to save a few, too.

Lest aspiring speakers get ahead of themselves, Singer notes that students
won't learn Navajo overnight. "It's one of the most difficult languages in
the world, up there with Chinese and Finnish," he warns. "Will they speak it
by the end? Oh, no! It's tonal, and it's got nasalized vowels -- you can
study it for decades and never really be fluent."

Witherspoon was quickly struck by the language's complexity. "Unlike in
Spanish and French, there are almost no cognates," she comments. "It's very
unlike English. If I had to compare it to something, I'd maybe say it sounds
Asian. You spend most of the first quarter just learning the sounds."
Cultural Revival

Still, Witherspoon says she intends to plow through and hopefully continue
her study in the years ahead. "I've been out to the reservation and seen the
culture, and it's amazing. It's like traveling to another country without
leaving this one," she says. "I don't want something this important to a
culture to vanish. It'd be like letting English die. No matter how small a
population is, I don't think it's right to let a culture die."

The American Academy's Rebekah Richards says many of her school's students
feel a similar draw to Singer's classes. Although the vast majority of
students are high school age, she notes that a couple are in their 50s and
"just always wanted to learn Navajo."

"It's a very personal thing for the students who come to us," Richards
explains. "Being able to learn on their own terms is a powerful model and a
powerful paradigm shift. It opens doors that weren't otherwise available to
students. I think this is the epitome of what online learning can do."
*Chris Colin* writes the On the Job column for the *San Francisco
Chronicle*and is the author of
*What Really Happened to the Class of '93*. Reversing Yesterday's
Educational Mistakes

"The global village" -- it sounds cozy. But as globalization has awakened us
to other cultures around the planet, it's also, in some cases, hastened the
extinction of those cultures. Language often presents the clearest example
of this effect. Smaller languages get swallowed by larger ones; Chinese,
Hindi, English, Russian, and Spanish seep across borders and into
institutions, and the less prominent Sarikolis, Parengas, and Clallams of
the world recede further into the margins. It's a pattern Navajo-language
preservationists hope to forestall.

The fight to save Navajo is often a struggle against mistakes made years
ago. Today, students at the Tuba City Boarding
on the Navajo reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, have the opportunity to
study the Navajo language, history, and culture. But it wasn't always so.
American Academy teacher Ron Singer attended the school half a century ago,
when the U.S. Department of the Interior ran it.

"We called it federal prison. They told us we couldn't speak our language,"
he says. "We had to learn English -- that's all. If you got caught speaking
Navajo, they washed your mouth out with soap. It was terrible."

When the government wasn't banning the language, it was burning it. Singer
describes with pride how his native language was the basis for the only code
never broken by the Japanese military during World War II. But in seeking to
protect that code, the U.S. government also burned a great many Navajo books
at the time. As a result, the written record of the language grew even
smaller -- not an insignificant loss for a language that was, until
relatively recently, mostly oral.

Those who struggle to preserve Navajo takes solace in precedent; languages
have occasionally been brought back from the brink: In the Republic of
Ireland, the Gaelic-revival movement brought the once-vanishing Irish
language to a point where 13 percent of the population speaks it.
Twenty-five years ago, fewer than 1,000 people spoke Hawaiian -- also banned
in schools at one point. That number has multiplied tenfold. And Hebrew
might be the best example of what's come to be called language

SIL International <>, a faith-based organization that
works with the world's lesser-known languages, put the larger crisis of
vanishing languages into perspective in one of its
"The number of languages listed for the United States is 238. Of those, 162
are living languages, 3 are second languages without mother-tongue speakers,
and 73 are extinct," the report states.

It would be a rare thing for a highly complex, geographically disparate, and
largely underrecorded tongue such as Navajo to resist the dominance of
English. But for teachers such as Singer, who are working to spread its use
bit by bit, the language is too special to let slip away.

"They didn't have a word for "cell phone," so they came up with a word that
translates as 'the person who's spinning' -- because people on cell phones
are always turning around, looking for a signal," Singer says. "So this is a
language that's still evolving. And I think we've got a chance to stop it
from vanishing." *-- CC*

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