Margaret "Peggy" Speas

UMass Amherst Linguist Recognized for Preserving Native American Languages


Margaret “Peggy” Speas, professor of linguistics, was recently nominated by her peers as a University of Massachusetts Amherst Spotlight Scholar for her 20-plus years of work to preserve North American Native languages, especially Navajo.

Speas is a founding member of the Navajo Language Academy (NLA), a nonprofit organization devoted to the study and preservation of the Navajo language. She did a lot of work to get the organization incorporated and has served continuously on the board, with two years as president.

“I have nothing but praise for Dr. Speas,” said Lorene Legah of Diné College, Window Rock, Arizona, and current NLA president. “She has made valuable contributions to our Navajo teachers, has been a steady advocate for our organization, and remains as an integral part of NLA. Her enthusiasm for linguistics is evident from her support and from her published works.”

One of those books, Dine Bizaad Binahoo’aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language, Speas co-wrote with Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a native speaker and professor of Navajo at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. In July 2008, the book was adopted as an official state textbook for the Navajo language—it was a first for a Navajo author.

“With this textbook, Navajo students will have the opportunity to understand the history of their family and culture while improving their academic achievement,” Secretary of Education Veronica C. García told at the time. “Reading scores for Native American students have increased 6 percent over the last four years. We have also increased the number of Native American teachers and administrators by 15 percent in the last four years. Language is the key to education goals, and Dr. Parsons Yazzie and Professor Speas have provided a resource for students to better understand language and cultural foundations.”

Speas pointed out that while Navajo is the most widely spoken of the many threatened Native languages, “there are only 100,000 or so native speakers of Navajo left and fewer than 5 percent are children under age 5.” She blames the boarding school system, which punished children for speaking their native languages, and made parents reluctant to teach children Navajo from a young age.

Because of this schools on and around the Navajo Nation began instituting Navajo as a second language programs. In March 2011, the Navajo Times reported that about 3,200 of the 10,516 students in Farmington, New Mexico schools are Native American, and the district spends about $2 million a year on its 14-year-old language program, which teaches Navajo and Spanish from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Through NLA, Speas has co-taught summer workshops where Navajo language teachers get together to share ideas and learn the intricacies of Navajo grammar. She also co-organized the 16th annual Workshop on the Structure and Consistency in the Languages of the Americas hosted by UMass Amherst. Speas joined the linguistics faculty at UMass Amherst in 1989.

“We’re pleased that Peggy is being recognized for her scholarly works,” said John McCarthy, chair of the UMass Amherst linguistics department. “She is a highly valued colleague to campus and especially to the Navajo nation. Peggy has been an important contributor to the field of linguistics and a scholar with a well-developed conscience.”

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