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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  • Matt

    Wow. I’m impressed.

    I’ve wondered for a while now how the team at Rosetta Stone gets the natives to speak the correct words for every picture. I mean, for example, if the native were to see a picture of a man drinking, how does he/she know to just say “The man is drinking” rather than go into more detail and say, “the man wearing a blue shirt is drinking juice (or, water)”.

    Now, on the other hand, if the native never sees the picture while recording, does it have to be done by either having the native first learn English, and then knowing what to say, or do employees from Rosetta Stone learn the target language first, then tell the native what to say? Either way, I can see this being especially hard with a language like Navajo.

    So I guess the question is, how does Rosetta Stone manage to get a point across, while teaching correct grammar and avoiding common slang?

  • Trinka

    Will the Endangered Language Program languages ever be available for general use or sale?

    • rvoiceadmin

      Hi, Trinka. Thanks for your question. Our current practice is to partner with a sponsoring group to produce an endangered language. Sponsors retain ownership of the language materials developed during the project, and they gain exclusive sales and distribution rights over their finished edition. If you are interested in purchasing the new Navajo language product, you can contact the Navajo Language Renaissance at navajorenaissance@yahoo.com.

  • Danny Hieber

    Hi, Matt. We worked intensively with bilingual native speakers to first design a Navajo script that was appropriate for the language. Then when it came time to record, the speakers could see both the Navajo script and the photo for every screen, so they knew precisely what to record. The process of writing the script is a huge collaborative effort, requiring us to learn as much as possible about Navajo grammar along the way. I hope this helps answer your question!

  • http://sofarfromheaven.wordpress.com sofarfromheaven

    I took a course titled “Breakthrough Navajo” back in 1975 when I worked in Gallup. I like to think I have a knack for languages. For me, by far the hardest part was to hear / recognize the sounds of Navajo and then to say them, regardless of their meaning.
    The different forms of ‘to be sitting there’ gives me the impression the Navajo description of a piece of rolled-out pie dough would be different depending on whether or not it was frozen stiff!

  • http://sofarfromheaven.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/navajo-language-software-launched-by-rosetta-stone/ Navajo Language Software launched by Rosetta Stone | So Far From Heaven

    […] so in theory what you see is what you pronounce. Contact and ordering information is here. This is a fascinating blog entry by a Rosetta Stone staffer on some unique difficulties in teaching … A free online demo of the Navajo package is available here. This entry was posted in […]

  • http://danielhieber.com/2010/08/25/navajo-rosetta-stone/ Navajo Rosetta Stone | Daniel W. Hieber

    […] company also just put up a blog post I wrote about the Navajo project and the challenges we faced along the […]

  • Jim Starkovich

    My uncle Jack from Gallup told me that Navajos use the same word to describe the heart of a human and the engine in a car because there was no word in their language for “engine in a car”.

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