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Navajo Speakers Work With Duolingo To Preserve Their Native Language

Justin Merriman
Provided by Duolingo
Mable Martin, a teacher at Blanding Elementary School, teaches Navajo to students during a class last month.

One of the oldest languages in North America is at risk of endangerment.

Diné is the most common indigenous language in North America, but is now classified as an endangered language.

Duolingo has been working with the Navajo Nation, who are native speakers, to create a course to help preserve the language. The course is in beta testing and is available for free to people who want to learn the language.

“Whether it’s for strengthening connections to cultural roots, learning more about the local communities in the four corners region, enhancing travel experiences or simply out of curiosity,” according to a Duolingo course description.

The course features skills that teach learners about the culture of the Navajo people and uses audio recorded by native speakers.

The course was developed with San Juan School district educators and students in Blanding, Utah, part of an area known as the Navajo Nation.

Pittsburgh photographer Justin Merriman visited the area last month to document the volunteers who created the course with Duolingo. He said he was struck by the intergenerational effort to revitalize the language.

“It was a powerful thing that the students wanted to be involved in this. It also included their parents and grandparents,” he said.

He also photographed cultural events including a traditional healing ceremony that most non-Navajo people are not invited to witness.

“I watched something that would look very similar to the way it looked a 100-plus years ago. I stood there kind of in awe of it. To know that this is still happening in our country, that this beautiful piece of cultural history is still going on is what this is all about,” he said.

Myra Awodey, project manager for Duolingo, said fluency isn’t wasn’t the initial objective.

“Ideally, of course, we would like to take somebody from complete novice to expert fluency level. The course as it is now is very short and it will not make you fluent. This is more of a first step in what we think will be a long-term project,” she said.