Talking, learning with masani

Software developers produce app to help toddlers learn Navajo

By Levi Long
Special to the Times

PHOENIX, Jan. 9, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Levi Long)

Rusty Calder, left, and Isreal Shortman are the founders of Tinkr Labs, a Phoenix-based software development company that developed the Navajo Toddler app.

When it comes to kids and their iPads, music and games are the usual play du jour. But a new application for Apple products aims at giving children a Navajo language lesson using playful images.

The new Navajo Toddler "app" was released this fall on the Apple iTunes website for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch products and is gaining popularity for youngsters and those wanting to learn the basics of the Navajo language. Since its launch, more than 2000 downloads have been stored.

"Our vision is to provide a learning-based system based on our language and culture," said Isreal Shortman, 37, a software developer and engineer. "When you look at younger generations of Navajos, a lot are losing their culture and language, but we hope to get them started early by learning a few basic words and phrases."

Apple product users with touch screens can download the educational app for free and use the software to learn Navajo phrases on their mobile devices.

The app features interactive flash cards using audio and colorful pictures for categories that include numbers, food, body parts, animals, colors and several simple phrases including "Ya'at'eeh" (hello), "Hagoonee'" (goodbye) and "Ahehee'" (thank you).

When children touch the interactive cards, they hear audio of the Navajo word or phrase.

There is also a flash card game where users have to choose which correct Navajo word corresponds to the right picture.

"Navajos are visual learners and we wanted to have fun illustrations with culturally appropriate scenes," Shortman said, pointing to an example of a cartoon of Monument Valley used as the background on the flash cards. "It makes kids smile."

Shortman, along with his business partner Rusty Calder, are the founders of Tinkr Labs, a Phoenix-based software development company that developed Navajo Toddler.

They hope the app gets children started on basic Navajo vocabulary by hearing the voice of a Navajo elder.

They say the app also helps children form word relationships with the content on the screen and, in turn, increasing retention of the word and phrase.

They also hope the playful, colorful cartoon illustrations make using the app fun.

That's exactly the reason Las Vegas, Nev., resident Silver Salazar, 30, got the app for her 22-month old daughter Roxy. Salazar recently recorded Roxy using the Navajo Toddler app on YouTube.

"My daughter loves it, she already knows how to use the iPhone and when she gets on the app, she repeats the narrator and is able to repeat the words and now knows to identity parts of her body and face," Salazar said. "She catches on pretty good. She'll scroll through and can identify 'eyes' and 'nose' and say 'anaa,' 'achiih,' and there are times when she doesn't need the app and says it on her own."

After seeing a posting about Navajo Toddler on Facebook, Danielle Burbank, 34, a reference librarian at San Juan College in Farmington, decided to try the app with her 4-month-old daughter.

"Navajo Toddler is the most appealing to the eye, it's exciting to see," Burbank said. "Even though Elizabeth is too tiny to read, I got them on our iPad and it's very convenient."

Burbank sees a use for other new parents looking for new ways to teach the Navajo language.

"Navajo kids are visual learners, its eye-catching, it can be useful," she said. "I have cousins in Virginia and they get excited to learn about the Navajo culture."

That sort of reaction is what Shortman likes to hear about the Navajo language.

After looking at ways to teach his own 11-year-old daughter more Navajo, Shortman brainstormed the Navajo Toddler app with his business partner. They designed it for basic users but are aiming for children ages 2 to 9 years old.

"When it comes to dealing with younger children, there really isn't a lot out there besides having an actual person in the home to teach Navajo," he said. "But a lot of these kids have access to iPads, iPhones, so we took that idea and morphed it into the Navajo Toddler app."

When it came to finding the right voice for the app, Shortman turned to his 62-year-old mother. Using an elder's voice for Navajo has a distinct tone and pronunciation that people appreciate, Shortman said.

"From the feedback we get, a lot of people have started calling her masani," he said.

It took about two months to develop the graphics, art work and software and onto the Apple Store website.

"We worked on it over the summer and used as much spare time as possible to develop it," Shortman said. "We also have full-time jobs. We did this as a side project but eventually we want to get to a point where we can work full-time for Tinkr Labs."

This is the first application developed by Tinkr Labs, which plans to release periodic updates of Navajo Toddler over the next few months, he said.

Shortman, who grew up mostly in Shonto, Ariz., said he remembers students being categorized into two camps: Those who spoke too much Navajo and were considered "too rez" and those who spoke too much English and were considered "too Anglo."

"While I was growing up I went to off-rez schools and came back and was criticized on both sides," he said. "I'm hoping with this technology as a base, we can help get rid of that distinguishment."


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