Nihiyázhí bizaad: Investigating Navajo Child Language Development

2022 Recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences Community-Based Research Initiative

Very little has been written on language development of American Indian languages but through this 10-month study – which is the first of its kind - researchers are tracking Navajo language development in infants and toddlers. In partnership with the Saad K’idilyé Diné Language Nest, researchers from the Department of Linguistics are observing the natural interactions between children and their caretakers in order to document child-directed speech. 

According to usage-based theories, the most frequently used adult words are those that are learned first by children. The primary research questions to be investigated is – How do Navajo children begin to learn Navajo?How much Navajo language input is needed for children to begin to learn Navajo? Answers to these questions will guide and shape how the language is used in the Language Nest. 

Using Saad Kidilyé video recordings and notations, researchers are building a database of child-directed speech, and they are also able to identify and describe child gestures in the pre-Navajo word stage. In the acquisition of a language, the pre-word stage is an important milestone.  

With the help of parents and caretakers, a list of first Navajo words for each child will be created. It is important to conduct research on Navajo child-directed speech because this addresses a gap in child language literature. 

Other research questions to be answered are - What gestures and non-word vocalizations are used by children in the pre-Navajo word stage? What are children’s first Navajo words? Are highly frequent adult words among those that are initially produced by children? Answers to these questions are lacking in the study of Navajo child language development in infants and toddlers, and this study is providing a significant contribution to research on Navajo language acquisition and on child language acquisition in general. 

Nihiyázhí bizaad: Investigating Navajo Child Language Development is being led by Melvatha Chee, assistant professor of Linguisitics. 


Read more about this project here.