Arizona State University
Freshman Cora Tso has grown closer to her culture by taking Navajo classes.

Learning Navajo Helps Students Connect to Their Culture

Arizona State University News

Difficult Language, Yet a Reminder of Home

Classes are structured in a manner that allows students to interact as much as possible in a language that is not easy to master.

“The Navajo language is a very difficult language to learn. Students need to learn to use muscles that are not used in English. The best way to learn is to try to speak,” Begay said. “The Navajo language has diacritical markings such as high tones, nasal sounds, and glottalized consonants. It takes practice.”

Lab time spent outside of class consists of interacting in Navajo through conversations with elders, speaking during ceremonies at home or talking with fluent speakers on campus.

“It’s hard to teach my tongue to say the different vowel sounds and symbols,” said Tso, whose clans are Reed People, Black-Streaked Wood, Bitterwater and Red House. “You need to interact with others to know that you are saying it right.”

Navajo class also gives many students a welcome reminder of home.

“Many of the students sometimes begin to feel homesick after moving from the reservation to ASU. They miss their grandmothers. They miss the sound of the language,” Begay said.

Allan, a Barrett, the Honors College student, hopes to use his language skills in his career as he plans to work with Native people and be a voice for them, especially when it comes to teachings about the environment and people’s relationship with the land.

Tso plans to help her people as she works toward a dual degree in American Indian Studies and political science. A Barrett, the Honors College student and Gates Millennial scholar, she plans to attend law school and learn Indian law, eventually working for the tribe.

“I don’t see many people talking about language preservation or cultural restoration. More students are working in the present. I think we’re all trying to do our best to work with the world we’ve been born into,” Tso said.


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tzurinskas's picture
Submitted by tzurinskas on
I'm developing a phonetic spelling that I hope could be a common intermediary to all languages. It's called truespel phonetics. I've already written US English phonetically. For more info search on "truespel" at I'd like to apply it to American Indian languages, especial "code talking" Navajo. One issue is how to say the word "Navajo". While vacationing in Utah, I asked a very old Navajo lady how to say it. She said it with the first "a" not as in "ah" but as in "gnat or navigate". In truespel it would be spelled ~Navuhoe versus ~Naavuhoe as it's pronounced in this video. Using a standard intermediary phonetic spelling would help straighten this out. I hope I can help.