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UNM Assistant Professor Melvatha Chee has received the Mary R. Haas Award from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas for her work on the Diné language.


The award is presented to “a junior scholar for an unpublished manuscript that makes a significant, substantive contribution about Indigenous languages of the Americas,” according to the group’s website.


The award is for Chee’s 2017 dissertation, A Study on the Acquisition of Navajo Verbs in Children Aged 13 Months Through 10 Years, and allows her to publish it as a book.


The book builds on her early work with Diné child language, which analyzes Navajo verbs produced by Diné-speaking children, said Chee, director of the Navajo Language Program in the UNM Department of Linguistics.


This work “gives insights into understanding how the production of Navajo verb words develops within Diné-speaking children,” she said. 


To understand the acquisition of Navajo verb words produced by Diné-speaking children, Chee collected and analyzed audio recordings of Diné-speaking children having conversations with caretakers. 


“I found that word meaning (such as eat, jump, run, play, etc.) is central to learning the verb, and that meaning paired with features of Diné language such as high tones, nasalization, and vowel lengthening (sound) is an even stronger acquisition cue when learning Diné Bizaad,” Chee said.


“Therefore, linguistic units that have a meaning-sound pairing are more noticeable than those that do not. If a linguistic unit has multiple meanings, which is typical in Diné Bizaad, then those units would be harder to learn. If the degree of meaning-sound pairing guides the acquisition of Navajo verb words, then it can be extended to the rest of the language.”


Along the way, Chee found that she enjoyed working with Navajo verbs.


“This research topic allowed me to earn my education and make a significant contribution to Diné Linguistics, which is useful for my Diné community.”

The work is important at this time, Chee said, because there are very few studies of Navajo child language acquisition, or of Native language acquisition in general. 


“For some languages, child language acquisition has never been studied. This type of work is important because it has implications in developing approaches to second language learning, creating pedagogical materials such as textbooks and curricula, producing assessments appropriate to a speech community, developing language policies, and addressing social justice issues (equality, diversity, and antiracism) by moving away from standardized languages and western-centric linguistic knowledge,” she said.


The work is personal for Chee, who sees it “as a tool in our efforts to generate Diné child speakers. The more child speakers there are, the more we are able to sustain our language.”


More broadly, she said her work can also be used by the Dene (Athabaskan) speaking community across North America, who are also looking for ways to sustain their languages. 


“For society, this work can be replicated, or altered to fit the needs of other Indigenous communities interested in language sustainability,” she said.


Looking ahead, Chee would like to see more work being done on this topic, which is part of a larger movement of Native language research that uses the hashtag #ForUsNativesByUsNatives.


I’d like to see many Native communities in New Mexico work on documenting child speakers of their languages to learn new, effective, strategic ways to implement language revitalization efforts, using an approach that is based on and guided by our own ways of using our languages.” 


Child speakers of any speech community are crucial, she said, because they are the ones to mature with the language and who will speak it in the future. 


Without Native languages, cultures may change, including the understanding of our relationship to one another, to our environment, and to the land,” Chee said. 


“Studies show that a connection to a language other than English, such as an Indigenous language, nourishes wellbeing and those individuals tend to be high achievers in their academic endeavors. There are lots of benefits for Native communities to ensure that their children are raised bilingually or multilingually.”