Nygren says best way to learn Diné Bizaad is to ‘hear’
The best way to learn Diné Bizaad is by actively listening, said president-elect Buu Van Nygren, who improved his Navajo fluency over the last four years.
Nygren, 35, is one of the few young Diné who speaks the language fluently – that contains variations in Northern and Central Navajo pronunciations. Nygren said he speaks the Northern dialect, sometimes to the degree that speakers of other agencies and the standard form of Diné Bizaad might not understand him.
“It’s just being from Northern Navajo,” Nygren said in an interview with the Navajo Times. “It’s just growing up in Northern Navajo.
“Kind of like my key thing––is speaking that language over there (in an agency): ahwééh––the differences,” Nygren said. “So, even in my speeches, I try not to say words that are too different. I try to stay as neutral as I can in a lot of my speeches (because) someone from Western might be listening to me, and I don’t want to be speaking in (a) dialect that’s a little bit foreign to them.”
Nygren says people often correct him when he’s speaking Navajo.
“I get that all the time, but it’s to their region––correctness to their region,” he explained. “So, I don’t take any offense to that. I’m always open to learning.
“That’s the secret to learning the language,” he said. “You’ve got to be open to a little bit of criticism. (People) tell you because they appreciate you because they love you. Like, ‘Hey, she’awéé, shiyázhí, doo ‘áhót’áo ‘ádííniida. Díidi, ‘áhót’áo ‘ajíniih.’”
‘Passion for the people’
Delegate Nathaniel Brown, the chair of the Diné Bizaad Subcommittee, said he spoke to Nygren and vice president-elect Richelle Montoya about the language that evolved over time.
Brown has said some Navajo words are old and have changed very little over time.
“I did bring this up to them about Diné Bizaad, and they do really support that,” Brown said Tuesday morning. “I talked to them about how nihizaad is a huge part of our healing as a people from these historical traumas.
“The latest trauma that we still live in is the pandemic, this COVID-19––it has really taken a lot,” he said. “People are hurting and grieving. Dinék’ehjígo, when you are in deep depression from loss, language is our healing tool; it’s our kétł’óól, our foundation of who we are as Diné––Nihookáá Diyin Diné.”
Brown said Nygren speaks fluent Diné Bizaad and has observed that the older men and women across the Nation appreciate him and know that he speaks with passion when he speaks to the Navajo people.
“He speaks loud, and they (elders) say he shows passion for the people and the land,” Brown said t’áá Dinék’ehjígo.
Nygren says now that he’s finished with school and work outside the Nation, he’s returned home and has been living in Diné Bikéyah full-time for over three years, during which he heard a lot more of the language spoken.
“Before, when I (was selected as former President Joe Shirley Jr.’s running mate in 2018), I was working outside (the Nation), and I’d come home once a month and be with family––just coming back here and there,” Nygren explained. “Now, I’m hearing a lot more Navajo, and that’s what’s critical about saving our language is while our elders are here, while our people speak really good Navajo.”
Nygren says he would like to set aside money to build a comprehensive Diné Bizaad program in which Diné youth wanting to speak advanced/fluent Navajo can learn.
“No matter where they are,” Nygren said. “Wherever they go, it should be free because the best way to learn Navajo is to hear.
“That would be beneficial to everybody,” he said. “That’s where I came up with the concept of, ‘If you’re hearing it, then you can really learn the language.’ So, if you’re hearing it through the phone/laptop or some sort of Navajo language program, then you’re really gonna be able to learn it.”
The young president-elect says when he runs into older people, he always asks them if they could speak to him in Diné Bizaad as a courtesy.
“I’m always trying to find more people to speak Navajo to me,” said Nygren, who can easily adjust to the dialects in each of the five agencies.
“But it all depends,” he added. “If I get enough elders speaking to me beforehand, I kind of adapt to a lot of those dialects right before I give a talk.”
Brown said it’s never too late to learn anything, including Diné Bizaad.
“It’s just a matter of immersing yourself in it,” Brown said. “In Navajo, we need to change something drastically. We need to open up our chapter houses and make them into a place where people can gather regularly after work and make it like a language learning center.
“That way, we can make it fun, and kids can enjoy singing,” he said. “It is challenging, but it is doable.”
Brown said shaming those trying to learn the language isn’t helpful and that a fluent speaker shouldn’t laugh about them.
“Let’s encourage and teach,” Brown added. “Language shaming needs to go.”