Two create new, easy-to-use Diné language app for iPhone

By Rachelle Todea
Special to the Times

SAINT MICHAELS, Ariz., June 13, 2013

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(Courtesy photo)

A screenshot of an iPhone app called "Navajo Keyboard" with the Navajo word "Ya'ateeh" written in it is designed by Jerome Tsosie, president and founder of Native Innovations Inc. The app is a free download from the App Store.

E f you've ever found keyboarding in the Diné language a challenge on your iPhone, there's an app now to ease that challenge.

Search the Apple app store using the term "Native Innovations" or "Navajo keyboard."

Jerome Tsosie, 36, president and founder of Native Innovations, Inc., created in November 2012 a free download of a Navajo language keyboard app universal for E-mails, texting and social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

To date, there have been over 3,000 downloads.

"Now, you see Navajo language (social networking) postings because of the keyboard," said Tsosie.

According to the app details, the "Navajo Keyboard makes it convenient for users to type in Navajo and removes many of the frustrations that users have with typing Navajo using the default iPhone keyboard

It's compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPod touch (3rd, 4th, 5th generation) and the iPad, and optimized for iPhone 5, according to the information required section of the app details.

Tsosie said Florian Tom Johnson, the Navajo Studies Coordinator at the Rough Rock Community School in Rock Point, Ariz., was instrumental in the keyboard layout.

"In my line of work, I have to keep up with the technology because the current generation of children (are) attracted to that," said Johnson.

To appeal to the younger generation, Johnson encourages the youth to seize the opportunity and download the free app.

Just like Tsosie had seized the opportunity to meet up with Johnson when Johnson had posted where he was having lunch during his stay in Flagstaff. That's when Tsosie seized the opportunity to approach Johnson about Native Innovation.

Tsosie "saw my post, came to Chipotle and we had a discussion," he said said Johnson about Native Innovation. "I presented my idea of a keyboard and I was referring at first for a computer keyboard and then expanding to a keyboard layout for Smartphones."

Johnson, who feels stronger using Navajo in his writing, wondered about developing a keyboard because he mostly communicates and composes documents in the Navajo language.

"So when someone texts me, I will respond in Navajo," said Johnson. "So, a Navajo keyboard layout was to benefit people like me."

The keyboard returns functionality of the Navajo language, Johnson explained.

"We need to put functionality back into the language to raise the status and power of the language," said Johnson. "Everyone knows how to text and post statuses on social networks," said Johnson. "I thought it would be great to use that media for this purpose - to give bring functionality back into our Navajo language."

Tsosie said that kids need to be active in using the Diné language.

With that Johnson considered keeping the layout similar to the QWERTY board layout, which refers to the letters positioned on the upper left row of letters on a computer keyboard: QWERTY.

Johnson said, "Even kids nowadays, their fingers have that innate ability to know where the letters are in the keyboard. We don't have a Q in our language so it gets replaced by the A?.

He continued by saying that the remaining vowels with high tones and nasals fall in the same area of the keyboard.

"We don't have the letter R so it is replaced with the E? and the remaining vowels for E with a high tone and nasal are in the area. I replaced the F with the (slash L) because that's the closest sound in Navajo …" he continued.

"Technology is supposed to make things easier. That's what it is engineered to do. If one has to go through layers within the keyboard, it takes too long and most people don't want to take time to type on the keyboard. You just want to type and then press SEND," he added. "We're in the digital age," said Tsosie. "You want [the Navajo language] to be accessible."

Realizing what's accessible on the Navajo Nation through CellularOne's Smartphone options, Johnson said he wanted the Android app version first for Smartphones then Apple.

Except that Native Innovation found a developer to design for the iPhone keyboard first and that's why the app is available now, explained Johnson and Tsosie.

The Android app is still on the proposal block.

Nonetheless, Johnson said, "I hope everyone uses it all the time … from the novice to the distinguished language user. We just need to give the Navajo language its functionality."

Even the Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim has given his positive feedback, Tsosie said.

"He loves it," said Tsosie.

Johnson said, "People (who) speak Navajo want to type in Navajo. People who speak who aren't literate in Navajo want to be literate."

To add, the app gives Tsosie a chance to practice using Navajo.

"Learning your language and spelling it correctly is important," said Tsosie.

Likewise, Johnson said, "The spelling of Navajo needs to be correct because when we change one tone or leave out a nasal on a vowel, it could change the meaning of a word.

Native Innovations, Inc., will be hosting a conference, "Digital Learning for Native American Students" on June 27-29, 2013 at Twin Arrows Casino with on-site registration. Online registration is also currently available.