Today’s letter is N, which means we’re going to look at the language Navajo.
Navajo is one of the most widely spoken Native American languages, with 171,000 speakers as of 2010; 7,600 of those are monolingual speakers. Nevertheless, despite these relatively high numbers, UNESCO classifies the language as vulnerable, meaning that it may well decline even further in the future.
Due to the impact of colonisation – namely, in the case of Navajo, the efforts put forth by the colonisers to prevent Navajo children from speaking their language – the Navajo language was already in decline before the early 1900s. However, there were still enough people speaking Navajo that they were hired as code talkers during World War II. Navajo was considered an ideal language for this because it differed so much from German and Japanese, as well as the fact that no dictionary existed for Navajo at this point in time. Unfortunately, despite a climate of accommodation in the 1960s, the Navajo language had already decline rapidly and many young Navajo people only spoke English.
There have of course been efforts to increase the number of Navajo speakers. It is the most widely spoken Native American language north of the Mexico-USA border, and there are some families who vigorously promote it; so their children learn Navajo bilingually alongside English. There are also several schools that have immersion programs, as well as the language being taught at several universities. Although the number of native speakers has declined rapidly, especially in the last few decades, it seems that there is enough pride in the language and culture to help it survive longer.
Resources for learning Navajo