UMass Amherst Linguist Recognized for Preserving Navajo and Other Native American Languages

AMHERST, Mass. - As middle and high school students across the Southwest celebrate their access to Navajo language classes this spring, the University of Massachusetts Amherst community is celebrating Margaret "Peggy" Speas, professor of linguistics, as a 2011 Spotlight Scholar, in recognition of her 20 years of work to preserve North American native languages, in particular Navajo.

As the Navajo Times reported this month, for example, about 3,200 of the 10,516 students in Farmington, New Mexico schools are Native American, and the district spends about $2 million a year on its 14-year-old bilingual program, which teaches Navajo and Spanish at every grade level, K-12.

UMass Amherst’s Speas is a founding member of the Navajo Language Academy (NLA), a non-profit group formed in the 1970s to promote research and teaching of the Navajo language. She did much of the legwork for the incorporation and has served continuously on the board, including two years as president. The academy has hosted Navajo linguistics workshops for language teachers and scholars every summer since 1997.

This year, Speas was nominated by her peers as a Spotlight Scholar for her research, creative achievements and contributions to her field.

"I have nothing but praise for Dr. Speas," said Lorene Legah of Din? College, Window Rock, Ariz., and current NLA president. "She has made valuable contributions to our Navajo teachers, has been a steady advocate for our organization, and remains as an integral part of NLA. Her enthusiasm for linguistics is evident from her support and from her published works."

Although Navajo is the most widely spoken of the threatened Native American languages, there are only 100,000 or so native Navajo speakers left and fewer than 5 percent are children under age 5, says Speas. Historical and social factors behind this include a school system that punished children for speaking any language but English into the 1960s, says Speas. Consequently, several generations of parents were reluctant to bring up their children speaking Navajo.

As fewer children became fluent at home, schools on and around the reservation instituted classes in Navajo as a second language. Speas has co-taught at NLA’s annual summer workshops that gather Navajo language teachers to share ideas about teaching and studying the intricacies of Navajo grammar.

Additionally, Speas worked with Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a native speaker and professor of Navajo at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, on an introductory Navajo language textbook that has since been honored as the official textbook of New Mexico by former Governor Bill Richardson.

"We’re pleased that Peggy is being recognized for her scholarly works," said John McCarthy, chair of the UMass Amherst linguistics department. "She is a highly valued colleague to campus and especially to the Navajo nation. Peggy has been an important contributor to the field of linguistics and a scholar with a well-developed conscience."

Speas recently co-organized and UMass Amherst hosted the 16th annual Workshop on the Structure and Consistency in the Languages of the Americas. She joined the UMass linguistics faculty in 1989 and brought to the program her specialty in syntactic theory and her passion for linguistics in education.

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