Rosetta Stone-Navajo a new tool to learn language

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 11, 2010

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When Tawny Begay, 39, heard about the new Navajo version of the Rosetta Stone language learning program released last week, she knew she wanted a copy for herself and her two children.

"It's a gateway into their culture," said Begay, who is originally from Crystal, N.M., but now resides in Golden, Colo.

She said both her children have been raised off the reservation and for them to have the opportunity to learn Navajo is important.

"With this program, as they learn, they get that tie (to the reservation), even in its smallest measurement," she said.

Begay can try out the program online for free, too, at

According to the 2000 Census, less than 50 percent of Navajo children under the age of 17 could speak Navajo. Rosetta Stone's release of a Navajo language learning program could help revitalize or sustain a language that is credited with aiding the Allied victory in World War II.

"Every time I think about it, I get goose bumps," said Betsy Cook, director of Navajo Language Renaissance, a nonprofit program that worked with Rosetta Stone to develop the Navajo language version. The new software program will be sold through Navajo Language Renaissance.

Rosetta Stone is one of the most popular language learning software programs in the industry. The Navajo language version was funded partially by Navajo Language Renaissance and through Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language Program.

"We're excited that the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program can play a role in encouraging younger generations to use the Navajo language," said Marion Bittinger, Endangered Language Program manager, in a press release.

"We're optimistic our work with indigenous groups will be a step toward reversing the tide of global language extinction," Bittinger said.

Cook said she is excited about the release of the Navajo Rosetta Stone program, but the initiative has some critics.

Some people in online communities complain that now non-Navajos can learn a language that was entrusted to the Navajo people and is, in that sense, sacred.

Cook responds, "There is a misconception that this is a bilagáana thing. It's not. It's made by the Navajo people for the Navajo people."

She added that more than 100 Navajo people worked in collaboration with Rosetta Stone to complete the project.

"(Rosetta Stone) has been incredible supportive and yet they will not be selling (the program)," Cook said.

In addition to selling the software through Navajo Language Renaissance, Cook said she is working on distribution agreements with the Navajo Nation Museum gift shop and a bookstore in Flagstaff.

Clayton Long, president of Navajo Language Renaissance and director of bilingual education for the San Juan School District in Utah, said he plans on using the program for his students.

"The Rosetta Stone will greatly help our Heritage Language Program already in place at our school district. Students will have a great opportunity to learn the Navajo language at their own pace," he said.

The Navajo Nation's superintendent of education, Andrew Tah, issued a news release saying that he knows of schools that have ordered and will order the new software.

"The Department (of Diné Education) is hopeful that, as teachers and students use the software, it becomes an effective teaching tool," he stated.

Tah added that his department also has other programs and initiatives to sustain the Navajo Language.

Rosetta Stone is currently working on an Inupuiq North Slope Dialect version to serve Alaska Natives, and released a Chitimacha version earlier this year, according to the release.

Kimberly Walden, cultural director for the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, said her tribe has been using its version of Rosetta Stone since January, and had to start from scratch to create it.

No one in the 1,200-member tribe is fluent in the language, she said, and the last two people who did speak Chitimacha fluently died before World War II.

"All we had was documentation and recordings from the 1930s," Walden said.

To create the software, the tribe enlisted the help of elders who recalled hearing the language in their youth, along with using the old recordings, she said.

"To teach a language you never heard, the key to that was through the elders," she noted.

Now the language being taught to Chitimacha children, she said.

"We're anxious and we're really looking forward to seeing the results of the product," Walden said, adding that the tribe has implemented the program in its tribal school.

Profits from the sale of Rosetta Stone-Navajo will go toward other Navajo Language Renaissance projects, Cook said.

"We're not stopping here. Teachers of Navajo (language) need all the materials they can get," she said.

Hopefully the new software will sell well enough that "I won't have to beat the bushes for donations," she said. "We're working on future Navajo revitalization materials and that's what the money's going toward."

Rosetta Stone-Navajo can be purchased directly from Navajo Language Renaissance (3120 North Caden Court, Suite 4, Flagstaff, AZ 86004). The boxed set includes a headset and microphone. The cost is $200.

Online subscriptions also are available for $75 a year.

For a free trial of the new software visit:


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