N.M.It wasn't your average word competition.
by a long shot.
Municipal Schools' first Navajo Spelling Bee pitted students from
grades four through eight against one of the world's most difficult
Smith, an eighth-grader at Tibbetts Middle School, emerged as the
champion after correctly spelling "adinidiin," the Navajo
word for "sunlight."
really hard," she said after receiving her trophy. "In
English, it's just plain letters, but in Navajo, you have to remember
to say all the high tones, nasal hooks and glottal stops."
Navajo written language includes 32 consonants and four vowels,
but it also comprises a variety of accent marks and other pronunciation
beat classmate Leighbobbie Moffet, a seventh-grader at Tibbetts
who forfeited the title when she misspelled "dikago neeneez,"
or "rectangle," by forgetting to clarify a nasal hook.
heart was beating really fast," she said. "But I feel
great about getting second place."
competition came after eight elementary and middle schools named
their top spellers. Twenty-three finalists, many dressed in traditional
Navajo attire, gathered in the district's conference room in anticipation
of the event.
the contest was short. Two-thirds of the contestants were eliminated
after the first round, and by the end of the second round, only
two remained. Armed with handheld chalkboards, students wrote the
words, then spelled them out loud in front of a panel of three judges.
difficult, the words were not unfamiliar. Teachers taught the 130
words for several weeks in advance.
a lot of hard work getting ready for this," said Grace Blackwater,
a Navajo language teacher at Tibbetts. "I try to teach them
to break up the sounds into syllables, and I think it all paid off."
first- and second-place winners came from Blackwater's class.
Yazzie, a Hermosa Middle School student, came in third.
one of the hardest languages to learn," said Rita LaPlante,
a Navajo language teacher at Hermosa. "It's hard to remember
all the high tones and glottal stops. Because of that, a lot of
students get eliminated."
agree learning the language is easiest when students start young.
The majority of students are not learning it at home, however, said
Jo Leiba-Jack, a Navajo language instructor at Animas Elementary
rather difficult to learn to read and write the language if you
don't speak it," she said. "It really helps if you grow
up speaking it fluently, but most parents, even those who do speak
it, aren't teaching it to their kids."
is an exception to that rule. The 13-year-old trophy-winner said
she started speaking Navajo at age 3.
didn't really study for the spelling bee," she said.
teachers didn't just focus on winning, said Mary Yazzie, a Navajo
language instructor at Heights Middle School. Yazzie assigned her
students to write 15 words from the list 10 times every night until
they had them memorized.
paid off, but I didn't have a winner," she said. "In my
case, I think it helped the students develop confidence in themselves.
Even though they weren't winners this year, there's always next
hope to continue the competition next year and expand it to include
students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Carmelita Lee,
Navajo bilingual facilitator for the district.
expansion will be a process.
Navajo historically is not a written language, the district had
to double check every word on the list to make sure it was spelled
correctly, Lee said.
a universal word list is established, the district hopes to expand
the spelling bee, possibly to the state level, she said.
effort to reward student spellers is worth it, Smith said.
excited that I won," she said. "I can't wait to have my