The University of New Mexico

11/21/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/21/2023 08:12

Cradle of culture: How do children learn Navajo

A child's first word is a milestone built upon months or years of constant interactions with friends, family, and community. Even a consistent "hello" at the grocery store from beaming cashiers is the kind of interaction that fosters language development in many infants, but in the case of Diné Bizaad, also known as the Navajo language, there is a prominently sized gap in such a significant turning point for young children.

Little to no published work on how children develop their words and speech exist in association with Diné Bizaad. To sustain such pivotal tools like child language is to develop language-teaching tools, sustain vibrant speaking groups, and even better understand the human brain.

In this episode of It's (Probably) Not Rocket Science, explore research by one of the world's only child linguistics scholars in the Navajo language at the University of New Mexico and Saad K'idilyé, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit focused on raising a new generation of Diné Bizaad speakers.

Saad K'idilyéis a language nest that works in collaboration with Diné relatives here in Albuquerque to promote Diné Bizaad language and cultural revitalization and sustainability. The organization is also a licensed daycare facility.

Cheryl Yazzie is the caretaker supervisor of the nest. She earned her Master's degree in Native American Studies at UNM. Her thesis focused on language preservation and the development of a Diné language nest. Cheryl helped develop and launch the Nest with four other people, including two UNM professors.

Yazzie said, "We try to provide a homelike atmosphere… talking to them in their own language, singing to them in their own language, kind of doing the things that we do - even the foods that they eat."

Warlance Chee was one of the founding members of Saad K'idilyé and he now serves as the director. As Chee puts it, "Everything that happens in the nest happens in the Navajo language."

No English is permitted. This means that caretakers sing transition songs, tell nursery rhymes, read stories and provide care all in Diné Bizaad.

What sets the language nest apart is how individual caretakers are with the children. "We look to their needs and we want to make sure that they themselves, as well as their families when they come here, are well-balanced physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally," Yazzie said.

The nest provides a safe space for parents to learn alongside their children without ridicule or harsh corrections. There, they are guided in their pronunciation and cultural exploration of Diné Bizaad.

"I think as we go further, the kids will exceed their parents as far as understanding and speaking," Yazzie predicted. "So we're trying to play catch-up with the parents for now, but they are very supportive."

Melvatha Chee is director of the Indigenous Child Language Research center at UNM, which launched last year at UNM to investigate how children learn and speak Diné Bizaad and empower indigenous to conduct their own language research. Majority languages like English, Mandarin or Hindi take the spotlight on studies in language development, leaving America's indigenous languages on the back burner.

Chee is also an assistant professor in the UNM Department of Linguistics and the director of the Navajo Language Program. She works closely with the nest, which she helped create, to learn more about how children are developing the language.

"There are no studies out there on things like a Navajo Child's first fifty words, let's say. They exist for English. Hundreds and thousands of literature is written on it," said Chee, "For Navajo, there's none that I know of."

"Navajo being the third most spoken language in New Mexico and Arizona after English and Spanish is a really important part of the mosaic of language and culture that is the state of New Mexico," reminded Alec Goldberg, a Master's student in the UNM Department of Linguistics, who works with Chee in the Indigenous Child Language Research Center.

"Developing a better understanding of Diné Bizaad and other indigenous languages could expand what we know about the brain and the thoughts and feelings young children are capable of," he said.

We know you'll enjoy this episode of IPNRS, but take small bytes, because this will be the last episode of the year. Listen in and learn more about this week's episode of It's (Probably) Not Rocket Science by visiting podcast.unm.edufor show notes and resources, or by subscribing on Spotifyor Apple Podcasts. Make sure to rate the show! IPNRS will return next year.