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(Many Paths)
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Students Compete In First Navajo Spelling Bee
by ALYSA LANDRY The (Farmington, New Mexico) Daily Times

FARMINGTON, N.M.—It wasn't your average word competition.

Not by a long shot.

Farmington Municipal Schools' first Navajo Spelling Bee pitted students from grades four through eight against one of the world's most difficult languages.

Kristi Smith, an eighth-grader at Tibbetts Middle School, emerged as the champion after correctly spelling "adinidiin," the Navajo word for "sunlight."

"It's 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."

The Navajo written language includes 32 consonants and four vowels, but it also comprises a variety of accent marks and other pronunciation rules.

Smith 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.

"My heart was beating really fast," she said. "But I feel great about getting second place."

The 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.

But 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.

Although difficult, the words were not unfamiliar. Teachers taught the 130 words for several weeks in advance.

"It's 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."

The first- and second-place winners came from Blackwater's class.

Tishena Yazzie, a Hermosa Middle School student, came in third.

"It's 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."

Teachers 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 School.

"It's 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."

Moffet is an exception to that rule. The 13-year-old trophy-winner said she started speaking Navajo at age 3.

"I didn't really study for the spelling bee," she said.

But 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.

"It 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 year."

Organizers 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.

But expansion will be a process.

Because 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.

Once a universal word list is established, the district hopes to expand the spelling bee, possibly to the state level, she said.

Any effort to reward student spellers is worth it, Smith said.

"I'm excited that I won," she said. "I can't wait to have my family know."

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