Rosetta Stone Navajo: Rising to the Challenge

The Navajo project has been an exciting challenge for the Endangered Language Program (ELP). As in most of our work at Rosetta Stone, there were logistical hurdles, like coordinating a project across the three states that comprise the Navajo Nation. There were cultural considerations unique to the ELP, such as avoiding sacred words used in traditional ceremonies; being sensitive to the Navajo norms about avoiding confrontation; and incorporating cultural items like the hooghan (the traditional Navajo house), rug weaving, and sheep (yes, sheep).

In the ELP, we pride ourselves on working with endangered-language communities to develop language-revitalization products that are meaningful to them and reflective of their unique heritages.

That’s where I come in. As content editor, my job is to work with language experts to create Rosetta Stone language-learning software for Navajo and other endangered languages. No easy task.

In Navajo, for example, here’s how we teach the verb “to be sitting there”:

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What’s going on in these three sentences? Well, in Navajo, “to be sitting there” changes depending on what’s doing the sitting. That’s right: when you talk about people, you say sidá; when you talk about roundish or squarish things, you say si’ą́; when it’s something that’s flat and flexible, you say siłtsooz. That’s easy enough to explain, but how do you teach it using only Navajo? You do it with images like these. Can you guess what type of object goes with sitą́?

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The Navajo language is this detailed about everything. That’s because, instead of borrowing words, fluent Navajo speakers are wonderfully creative when naming objects, coining terms like “the thing you stand up on the hill with” for “cellphone” (reception isn’t always the best in the Navajo Nation). The Navajo code talkers invented hundreds of words during World War II, and sometimes the words were really long! Take this one, for example:

chidí naa’na’í bee’eldǫ́ǫ́htsoh bikáá’ dah naaznilígíí.

It means “car that one sits up on that crawls around with a thing on it that makes big explosions” — otherwise known as “army tank.”

As you can see, the language is beautifully descriptive. Even the Navajo word used for “fork” depends on how many prongs it has (bíla’táa’ii for three and bíla’dį́į’ii for four). This made creating lessons tricky because, unlike in English where the word “chair” covers most types of chairs, in Navajo you need to describe it in more detail. A chair is bikáá’ dah ’asdáhí (“one sits up there on it”) or bikáá’ na’anishí (“one works on it”), depending on what you focus on. There are even different terms for older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister — all of which change depending on the gender of the speaker. Because of these fine points in the language, we created our Navajo course to teach just these kinds of nuanced distinctions.

Navajo verbs can be bewilderingly complex to a speaker of English. Verbs can have up to 11 different parts! The part telling you who or what’s doing the action is often tucked in the middle somewhere, making it difficult to tease apart. To teach this in our Rosetta Stone courses, we used some creative highlighting. Here’s just one example. Can you guess what the da and de parts signify?

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These were among many unique characteristics of Navajo that we worked to teach in the software we released just yesterday. The Navajo project was both fun and rewarding to develop, and it challenged us to innovate and enrich the way we teach languages.

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Danny Hieber

Danny is a linguist who works with speakers of endangered languages to document and revitalize their language, studies cross-linguistic patterns in language, and helps design prototypes of new products with Rosetta Stone Labs. After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a BA in linguistics and philosophy, Danny joined the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program in 2008 and has since adapted Rosetta Stone for the Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq languages. In his spare time, he does karate, plays piano, and researches cool things about language.
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