Beginning in the 19th century, the U.S. government began forcing Native Americans to learn English. Since then, Native fluency in the ancestral languages has significantly declined. Congress has since reversed the old
policy and is now encouraging the preservation of Native American languages. With a coverage area extending deep into the Navajo Nation, NPC has begun offering two classes in the Navajo language.
The Navajo I course (LAN 171) is being offered this fall semester, and the companion class Navajo II (LAN 172) will be offered in the spring 2019 semester. The introductory I class focuses on developing the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, along with basic grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and culture.
This class is a prerequisite for the II class, which emphasizes the vocabulary, verbs and sentence structures commonly used in the Navajo language. The instructor of the classes is Sylvia Jackson, a Navajo woman who is dedicated not only to the preservation of this language but also to the culture.
Originally from the Navajo community of Chinle, Jackson served for 10 years as a corporal and honorary first sergeant in the U.S. Army. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Arizona State University and a master’s degree at the University of Phoenix, with an emphasis on the Navajo language. She grew up speaking Navajo, and her parents are still fluent speakers. “Once my parents’ generation dies off, that will leave only my generation to share what was passed down to us. Adults in my age group (40-60) range
from fluent to limited, and I would estimate that 70 percent are Navajo speakers, with 20-30 percent literacy in the language,” Jackson says.
Jackson has been teaching Navajo for 17 years. She started her teaching career at Piñon Elementary School,
and for the past several years, has taught Navajo at the junior and senior high schools in Holbrook. She started
teaching at NPC in 2014, and says, “Studying a language improves cognitive development in multiple ways, including problem solving, recall and understanding the world. It improves academic achievement and makes the student aware of and appreciate other languages.”
Jackson also says that students can better maintain their cultural heritage by knowing their historical lan-
guage. “If our young Navajo students do not learn or maintain the Navajo language, our language will become extinct. This includes prayers, songs and oral history. Twenty years from now, I imagine the numbers of Navajo speakers will fall and 55 percent of Navajos will not speak or understand the Navajo language at all.”
Jackson is not only teaching Navajo, but she’s also attempting to preserve the language for posterity. She
makes recordings of her father as he shares oral history, songs and prayers used with ceremonies. The translations for some Navajo words have been lost, and she is trying to recover them. NPC students, Natives and non-Natives alike, have a unique opportunity to learn this language that is a huge part of the history and lore of the Southwest.