Is Navajo impossible to learn?

I’ve heard from a few different sources that the only way to learn Navajo is to be raised speaking it. My understanding is that the Navajo philosophy is so radically different from any other culture’s that the thought processes can’t be understood except by natives. If this is true, then I understand that the question may also be difficult or impossible to answer, but… what’s so unusual about Navajo?

Navajo certainly is a very ambiguous language, but it is by no means impossible to learn.

The Navajos were used during WW2 as “code-talkers” because the Japanese knew nothing of the Navajo language. However, they had to use very specific rules to avoid major ambiguities while communicating. It’s a language that would likely be much easier to learn from immersing yourself in the culture than in a classroom.

Yes, stories of the code talkers were what initially got me interested in the subject. But what is it about the language that makes it, so difficult, if not impossible, to learn?

      • I don’t know anything about the language in particular here, but usually, primitive languages are more ambiguous; verbs may not have separate present, past and future tenses, there may be no prepositional phrases at all, and some words may be used for both nouns and verbs. To compare, think of talking using only nouns and present-tense verbs: you can do it, but it sounds funny, and getting finer points across can be pretty difficult. In addition (-or rather, in subtraction), a lot of words for what you as a speaker of English would say aren’t unusual concepts are just plain not there, and never were. I’d bet that a complete Navajo dictionary wouldn’t nearly as big as a typical English college edition.
  • Add to this confusion the fact that previous to European arrival, many Native American tribes didn’t recognize the concept of an abstract word as a name (which is useful to do, to avoid confusing the name with other words), so names were themselves groups of common nouns and verbs. Such languages are actually easier to learn because there’s less to know, but doing so can often leave non-natives struggling to find words to use that don’t exist. - MC

Navajo is difficult, but by no means impossible, for English-speakers to learn. It is difficult because it is so different from English. Word meaning changes based on the pronunciation and stress of syllables. There are four tones (high, low, rising, falling) that also indicate meaning. Most of Navajo is organized in a way that English speakers would identify as the passive voice, so in a direct translation it’s not always clear what is the subject and what is the object.

Adults can and do learn Navajo, there are courses and textbooks available online. Several generations of children were prohibited from speaking Navajo at school (usually boarding schools, so they were unable to learn from their parents). Many of these people returned to school as adults to learn the Navajo language. Now, most Navajo elementary schools are bilingual. Parents are encouraged to speak some Navajo at home with their children, even if English is the primary language used. It is the most frequently used indigenous language in the US, with around 150,000 speakers. Traditionally, there was no written form of the language, but an alphabet has been developed and is now used in newspapers and books.

The complexity of a language has no relationship to the technological or social level of the people who speak it.

Having a big dictionary proves nothing, since the majority of speakers won’t know or use most of the words contained within. It just means your culture has a strong tradition of writing down words and collecting them in big books. I won’t deny this is useful, and needs to be done with disappearing Native American languages pronto, but as a sign of linguistic superiority? Meaningless.

English historically has gotten its huge lexicon by borrowing words from other languages, mostly. Any language is capable of doing this if the need arises.

Primitive languages, if by that you mean languages spoken by “primitive” cultures, are not more ambiguous. Grammatically speaking, if you compare specific parts of speech like pronouns, verb tenses, etc., they are often less ambiguous than, say, English. This will happen if you compare specific parts of grammar of any two languages, though, and doesn’t mean a lot.

But if you want specific lexicon examples, OK… for languages spoken by “primitive” cultures, often they’ll have very very specific terms for kin relationships and local flora and fauna that we English speakers lack, not having needed them on a day-to-day basis for hundreds of years.

Um, not likely. Native American brains operate pretty much the same way yours or mine does. What do you mean by “an abstract word” anyway?

Navajo may be difficult for English-speakers to learn, since it has many features not found in English grammar, but it’s not impossible, and there is no cultural basis for the difficulty whatsoever, other than the tendency of English speakers to readily believe many things that defy common sense about non-English speaking cultures.

Delphica’s on the right track. More later when I feel like digging up some cites.


Wow, MC has so many misconceptions in his post that I’m afraid he may just be trolling. Anyway, taking some of his points:

There’s really no such thing as a “primitive” language in the way you imply. Although some pidgins or jargons may be less complex because they are used in limited circumstances, native “first” languages are all actually quite complex. It is absolutely erroneous to consider a language like Navajo “primitive”, and doing so is certainly not accepted by the linguistic community.

So what? English verbs do not have separate perfective and non-perfective aspects, or separate middle and passive voices. Actually, English does not even have a future tense, strictly speaking. Spoken French does not have a separate past tense. Different languages have different ways of indicating temporal differences, that’s all.

Again, so what? Latin, Finnish, Slavic languages, and countless others use the case system to indicate relationships for which we use prepositions in English. For example, Latin cave canem, “beware of the dog”. There is no prepositional phrase “of the dog”, instead the noun canis is declined. Or Polish pise piorem, “I write with a pen”, where the English prepositional phrase “with a pen” is translated by the polish instrumental case of pioro – no preposition needed.

This one has got to be a troll. Are you serious? The following English words are both nouns and verbs: troll, fool, kid, laugh, waste, joke…you get the idea, I hope.

It is an absolute, but common, misconception that the languages of non-Westerners have tiny vocabularies. The languages are nowhere near as impoverished as you imply.

What a crock. (That’s a noun, MC). Cite, please. Since they are so easy, how many of these “primitive” languages do you know?

On second thought, this has got to be a troll. It’s just too ridiculous. Forget I responded :slight_smile:


Robert W. Young put together an English language book with a Navajo dictionary in it. It also contains a Navajo grammar.

The book is over 1500 pages long.

The Federal government has put together a couple different “pocket” Navajo dictionaries of 65 and 100 pages.

By an ‘abstract word’, I think MC is refering to our names. Adam, George, Bill and all the hundreds of thousands of names are all abstract. Even look, Bill has 2 other meanings other than the name. However, I know most wouldn’t get them confused.

But the names of the natives, I think he means things like “Stitting Bull” “Running Crow (although that’d be pretty inefficient :))” and others.

I don’t think I’ve looked at this book since the linguistics class I had it for, but see if you can find this:

Witherspoon, Gary, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe 1977 University of Michigan: Ann Arbor

My copy was printed in 1986. It may well have been revised since then. In any case, it’s a textbook, so a copy shouldn’t be too hard to find. Just fergoshsakes don’t ask Amazon to find it for you; they’ll charge you an arm and both legs. For this (or any used) book, go to

The language can be very difficult for non native speakers but not impossible. We have letters in the Navajo Alphabet that don’t exist in the English language such as the voiceless L or the t-voiceless-L combo that English speakers interpret as a ‘k’. Inflection, high tones, nasalization, glottal stops are included as well. I know a Navajo language teacher who is from Canada and is anglo. If I heard her speaking Navajo or Diné Bizaad without seeing her, I would assume she was Navajo.