Earlier this year I stumbled across Rosetta Stone’s endangered languages project.
I am really pleased that I did. So far it’s given me the opportunity to learn some Iñupiaq (North Slope, Alaska) and some Navajo (Arizona). The Iñupiaq course is available for free from this organisation. The Navajo course can be purchased online from Navajo Language Renaissance.
So what’s it like to learn an indigenous North American language with Rosetta Stone?
I’m a native English speaker with experience in Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese etc …). English shares quite a lot of vocabulary with the Romance languages, so they aren’t massively challenging for English speakers.
I never believed that I could learn a language that’s very different to English. Now with Rosetta Stone’s picture-based method it feels possible.
Most of the lessons are simple. Often, all the student needs to do is match the word or phrase with the picture or repeat a phrase into a microphone.
It’s unlikely I will ever be fluent in Iñupiaq or Navajo. The courses are fantastic but I feel that I would need access to a native speaker teacher, a native speaking community, and an accessible grammar guide to really reach fluency.
I bought the Iñupiaq dictionary. It’s a brilliant book but quite intimidating. Iñupiaq has a lot of word endings. And by this I don’t mean the verb endings we see in French or Spanish. I mean word endings that express who, where, how, what, mood and more. All these endings also mean that Iñupiaq words are very long and can be difficult to remember.
For Navajo I got hold of Garth A. Wilson’s Conversational Navajo Workbook: An introductory course for non-native speakers. I haven’t started using it yet but I like the look of it. It’s been written for learners rather than linguists, and seems very accessible.
As a spoken language, Navajo is easier for me than Iñupiaq in some ways. The words are shorter and it’s easier to distinguish the sounds. Iñupiaq has some g/q sounds that are difficult to tell apart. Quite a few sounds also come from the back of the throat.
Navajo feels closer to Italian. However it does have some very interesting sounds that require that the speaker presses their tongue hard into the roof of their mouth.