A UNM assistant professor of linguistics is studying the Navajo language and Navajo verbs during Native American Heritage Month.

Melvatha Chee studies how children under the age of 10 learn to use the Navajo verb. As the director of the Navajo Language Program, Chee oversees it and also teaches Navajo verbal morphology. She studies how the Navajo verb is formed, how to conjugate the verb, how to use the monumental Young and Morgan Navajo dictionary, and how to practice using those verbs in sentences.

“The verb word is interesting to study because a single word contains much information about the actors, the manner, the time, who, how many people, the shape of the object, etc. So, all this information is packed into one word and children have to figure out how to use it. Children tend to use certain parts of a verb before they learn to use other parts. For example, children use the part of the verb that contains the core meaning such as jump, talk, or eat. They pay attention to the edge of words where the core meaning is contained in the Navajo verb,” said Chee.

Melvatha Chee
Assistant Professor Melvatha Chee

Her study found that children use verb words that are very basic with limited inflection. For example, they might use “hozhǫ́” (happy) more often than “naanaashwoł” (I am running around). This also includes the frequent use of third-person singular verbs with no object that indicates a single person doing an action.

“Children under the age of 10 most often use verb words that require minimal information. It is interesting to see what they pay attention to and why. Through the analysis of their speech, we see what patterns they recognize and how they are analyzing the language. This information can be useful in designing teaching materials,” said Chee.

The most challenging thing about this research is that Chee has to create her own data. This is because her research is the first of its kind. Currently, she is working to organize her data using Praat, a sound analysis software, with the assistance of Professor Joyce McDonough of the University of Rochester.

“I...have about 70 hours that I need to transcribe. This is time-consuming work. It is also difficult to find help as many Navajo people don’t read or write their language, plus Navajo transcribers are very rare. I am frequently asked to transcribe other projects but I have my own to get through. I am hoping that by the summer, I will have much more data to use for analysis than I analyzed for my dissertation,” said Chee.

Chee recently co-wrote a chapter for an upcoming book. She and her co-author wrote about child speech and child-directed speech of Native American languages of North America. They surveyed over 90 articles and focused on specific areas of linguistics.

“We noticed that the articles we worked with are outdated, containing secondhand knowledge and very limited data sets. There is a need to study the first language acquisition of Indigenous languages and there is a need for Native scholars to do this work in their communities,” said Chee.

Chee has worked at UNM for about 15 months now. She enjoys the position and has focused on providing quality leadership for the program as well as quality instruction in remote teaching.

Since she started at UNM, she’s mostly been working with students minoring in Navajo language and linguistics at UNM. She also works with graduate students who are interested in studying Navajo language.

At first, she taught Navajo because there were very few individuals who could speak, read, and write the language in New Mexico. This led her to study Navajo linguistics at UNM where she also had the chance to teach Navajo as a teaching assistant.

Now, as an assistant professor, she teaches the Navajo verb system.

“If I could motivate students to learn the Navajo language then it would be great. But, if I can motivate our youth to learn to love learning the Navajo language, to become life-long advocates of Diné bizaad, and to teach what they have learned then I have done my job,” said Chee.

Learning and teaching her heritage language is vital for Chee because of its many benefits.

“...I am a Diné woman. I work hard to maintain a connection to my culture. I believe this benefits my personal wellbeing, enriches my language use, and it provides me with teaching and guidance,” said Chee.

Chee’s goal is to find some Navajo child speakers under the age of 6 and record them speaking in natural conversations with their caretakers. This data will give even more insight into the acquisition of the Navajo verb.

“I chose this topic because there was a lack of research on Indigenous child language acquisition. When I was a student, I learned that there was only one article about children acquiring of Navajo. This topic is very interesting and as fewer children are growing up speaking Navajo as their first language, this research becomes even more challenging,” said Chee.

This year, UNM is celebrating 50 years of Navajo language instruction. UNM will be hosting online language and culture events throughout the year. Check out the website for future events.