The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Preserving Native Treasures

Linguist Peggy Speas helps preserve the endangered Navajo language
  • Linguist Peggy Speas in her office

“There are only 100,000 or so native speakers of Navajo left and fewer than 5 percent are children under age 5.”

For more than 20 years, Professor of Linguistics Margaret “Peggy” Speas has worked alongside native speakers and community members to preserve the Navajo language, one of several hundred endangered Native American languages. For these efforts and for her talents as a linguist, Speas, a specialist in syntactic theory who joined the faculty in 1989, has been named a UMass Amherst Spotlight Scholar.

Although Navajo is the most widely spoken of the threatened Native American languages, Speas says, “There are only 100,000 or so native speakers of Navajo left and fewer than 5 percent are children under age 5.” The historical and social factors behind this, Speas explains, include a school system that up until the mid-1960s punished children for speaking any language but English. 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 is a founding member of a non-profit group, the Navajo Language Academy (NLA), that supports Navajo language education. The NLA began in the 1970s and formally incorporated in 1998. Speas did much of the legwork for the incorporation and has served continuously on the board, including two years as president.

The NLA’s annual summer workshops bring together Navajo language teachers to share ideas about teaching and study the intricacies of Navajo grammar. Navajo scholars, some of whom hold PhDs in linguistics and pursue research on Navajo language and pedagogy, teach most NLA classes. Speas has co-taught classes with these scholars and also has collaborated on projects analyzing Navajo syntax. Additionally, she worked with Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a native speaker and professor of Navajo at Northern Arizona University, on an introductory Navajo language textbook. Published in 2008, the book was the first such text by a native speaker, and is used in high schools on and around the Navajo reservation.

Speas strongly agrees with her late mentor, Kenneth Hale of MIT, that languages belong to those who speak them, not to outsiders who study them. She says, “There’s a long history in our country of non-native people trying to help native communities in ways that turned out not to be so helpful.” She takes to heart Hale’s belief that linguists who study languages not their own should contribute back to the language’s community. Says Speas, “I wanted to help in ways that supported the needs and desires of native speakers, to create a space where they can set their own research agenda and define those things they want to know about.”

This year, Speas brings her national efforts to preserve native languages to campus. UMass Amherst is hosting the16th annual Workshop on the Structure and Consistency in the Languages of the Americas, which Speas co-organized, from February 11 to 13. A session on native language revitalization in New England will feature presenters from the Mohawk, Abenaki, Maliseet, and Narragansett communities. 

Karen J. Hayes '85