Tips for learning Navajo

Navajo is a difficult language to learn. I'd argue its the trickiest on Duolingo so far. Of course while the grammar is hard enough, that's not what I want to get into right now. Navajo words themselves are hard to remember. With that in mind, here are some tips and mnemonics to better memorise Navajo words:

1) Learn the phonology

The phonology of a language is its sound system. Knowing the Navajo alphabet helps here. For instance, whenever translating something into Navajo, your fingers should never even touch the 'p', 'u', 'v' or 'r' keys of your keyboard.

A more helpful aspect of phonology for us here however is phonotactics, which dictates which sounds can co-occur. For instance, Navajo's syllable structure is CVC (the V here can be long or tonal). Therefore if you find yourself placing three consonants next to each other, you are also making a mistake somewhere (it is worth bearing in mind however that 'ts', 'ch', 'tł', etc... are single consonants, regardless of how they are spelt).

Other helpful phonological tips:

  • All verbs must be disyllabic (two syllables)

  • Navajo is a prefixing language, meaning the verb stem is the second of the two syllables, only the stem may carry tone (there are a few exceptions to this rule)

Of course while these rules narrow down what a Navajo word could be, it still leaves a lot of leeway. So here are some more helpful mnemonics:

2) Breaking down words

Navajo does a fair bit of compounding (sticking words together) which can make words long and hard to remember. On Duolingo the basic unit of a sentence that is taught is the word, which can be very unhelpful for languages like Navajo, as words are usually composed of many separate units. Here are some deconstructions I was able to figure out myself, but I am not a fluent Navajo speaker, so if any one is, other deconstructions would be very helpful to remember vocab:

  • ála' = hand - This is a base noun, meaning it is quite simple. Like all body parts, it starts with an 'a' (or 'á'). This is because body parts have to be accompanied with a possessive pronoun. Therefore 'your hand' would be 'nila''. 'a' however is the indefinite possessive pronoun, and is used to teach words in isolation.

Once you know the word for hand, you can attach other words to the end to form new meanings.

  • álazhoozh = finger (lit. hand extremity) - once you know this and the word for foot (akee'), you can figure out the word for toe - akézhoozh

  • álátłʼááh = palm (of the hand) (lit. concave part of the hand)

In the Food skill, the word for peach 'didzétsoh' can be easily broken down as 'great berry' (didzé = berry, -tsoh is an augmentative suffix) along with the word for orange 'ch'il łitsxooí' which means orange plant (łitsxooí is recognisable as a colour word thanks to its initial 'ł'). The word for chilli 'azee'dích'íí' breaks down somewhat less obviously (azee' = drug/medication (or any substance with supposed healing powers), dích'íí' = bitter).

In the Colours skill, you may also have noticed the words for blue and green: 'yágo dootłʼizh' and 'tátł'idgo dootł'izh'. Navajo, like most of the world's languages in fact, has one basic colour term for green/blue, which by itself is usually associated with turquoise. 'yágo' and 'tátł'idgo', which mean 'like the sky' and 'like water moss' (the '-go' suffix is used to mean 'like sth.') are used to narrow it down to 'blue' and 'green' as we understand them in English.

In the Money skill, you may have recognised the word 'naaki' to mean 'two' in 'naaki yáál' (a quarter). The word 'yáál' here means a 'bit' and came to mean an eighth of a dollar when the American monetary system was introduced. Therefore the Navajo word for a quarter literally means 'two-eighths of a dollar' (or 'two bits'). 'dį́į́’ yáál' and 'hast’ą́ą́ yáál' mean 50 cents (4 bits) and 75 cents (6 bits).

Also in the money skill the words for nickels, pennies and dimes (łitso, łichííʼí and dootł’izh) are the same as the words for yellow, red and turquoise. These supposedly describe the coins' colours (albeit not very well).

Other such constructions are quite clear from the course, such as all words for meat following the same pattern: [name of animal] + bitsįʼ (word for meat), or all '-teen' numerals ending in '(ts)ʼáadah' and all '-ty' numerals ending in '-diin'

3) Loan Words

Whilst Navajo is generally quite conservative with its vocabulary, it has borrowed some words in the past which may not be obvious unless pointed out.

  • béeso = money: from Spanish 'peso' - Navajo does not have a 'p' sound so it replaces it with a 'b' instead. Spanish loan words also generally have a falling tone (Navajo root nouns themselves do not have falling/rising tone, it is only found in grammatical contractions). Sidenote: the word for 'coin': 'béeso yázhí', also shows up in the Money skill. 'yázhí' is a common adjective meaning 'small' or 'little'.

  • biláasana = apple: from Spanish 'manzana' - again we see the falling tone, characteristic of Spanish loan words

  • béégashii = cow: from Spanish 'vacas' - this one makes more sense when you consider the Spanish 'v' sounds closer to a 'b' and stress in Spanish words is on the penultimate syllable

  • mágí = monkey: from English 'monkey'

As you can tell this only covers a small part of the vocabulary in the course, which is why I ask any Navajo speakers reading this to help out by breaking down the words on the course to help non-speakers such as myself to better understand the grammar and remember words more easily. I will add examples provided to the post so that hopefully it grows as a reference for Navajo learners on Duolingo.

Furthermore, if any of the Navajo course developers read this, it would be much appreciated if such word breakdowns could be provided in the grammar notes for every course, as they are invaluable in languages such as Navajo where almost every syllable has its own grammatical function.

October 10, 2018


I don't think Navajo is THAT difficult for most people if they have the proper resources to learn it. It's just very different from what they are likely used to. But I am glad to someone here with a deeper interest in Navajo and thank you for sharing this information. I think this sort of thing greatly helps "demystify" a languages and gives learners a sense that they are really learning the language, rather than just memorizing random collections of letters.

As depressing as it is, it appears on Duolingo's end, adding Navajo and Hawaiian was really little more than a PR stunt, which is why they got hastily added to the incubator and then hastily pushed through into beta for Indigenous Peoples Day in their current, very unsatisfying and incomplete states. I doubt the volunteer contributors wanted that, so I do not fault them for it.

While Duolingo can make promises galore, the truth is they have little motivation to support the further building of these courses. Keep in mind that there are other volunteer-created languages courses that were released in a more complete form which are kind of languishing from various neglect, be it a lack of audio, technical problems, lack of support in getting the trees updated or other issues. I fear Navajo and Hawaiian face a similar fate.

I have studied some Navajo (I live in the SW US) and I also study Scottish Gaelic. Its situation is very similar to Navajo's--it's a minority language that is struggling to gain proper support and respect within the modern day nation where its speaker population resides. Scottish Gaelic supporters have done something that in the world of minority language advocacy is considered almost a miracle: they have greatly reduced the decline of speakers of the language and made progress in getting more children and young people using it. This has been done by providing quality education and resources that support, enable and encourage people to use Gaelic in their community, and perhaps most importantly, at home, with their family and especially with their children. This is what truly "saves" an endangered language. If Duolingo genuinely wants to help Navajo, they need to support the Navajo team in making a quality course that provides the kind of knowledge of the language that enables people to use Navajo in their daily lives and with their families. I joke about how much time in my Scottish Gaelic studies I have spent learning how to talk about football (soccer) or gossip or bodily functions, but that's the sort of thing you need to learn: the kinds of things people talk to one another about. And that has to be more than colors, animals and numbers.

October 10, 2018

I was under the impression that these trees were not complete and that they intend to extend them as well as provide audio and grammar notes?

I've noticed that in developed countries like the USA, the UK, Canada and New Zealand endangered languages are making a comeback as people generally have the spare time to take them on board and more public money is made available to develop resources and more linguists study their grammar. So while it would be a shame if Duolingo didn't expand their courses, I'm still optimistic about the future of languages like Hawaiian, Navajo and Scottish Gaelic.

Australian Aboriginal languages and dying languages in less developed regions such as Africa, South America and Asia on the other hand are in a more dire state and I imagine many of them will be lost in the next few years. It would be great if sites like Duolingo could make courses for them but in many cases there is very little public interest and speakers are generally more isolated and harder to find. That being said some of the larger/more well-known ones like Quechua, Warlpiri (Australia), Mayan languages and Khoisan languages probably have more of a future.

October 10, 2018

I can give an etymological background to these words given that I am a native speaker. I am also a linguistics major.

October 13, 2018

That would be very helpful. Ideally I'd like breakdowns of other words in the course.

October 13, 2018

I,ve always had a fascination with native American culture,mybe when i finish my German and Russian tree's i give it a go.

October 12, 2018
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