Sterling Martin found that when he returned home to Shiprock while studying biochemistry at the University of Iowa, he had difficulty communicating his work to his family in their native tongue.
Martin, 32, is a member of the Navajo Nation and grew up speaking Diné Bizaad – the Navajo language – alongside English in his childhood home.
When explaining his studies, Martin grasped for words in Navajo that weren’t there. And as a result of their absence, he struggled to communicate with family members for whom the lack of accessibility to scientific language had quashed their interest in the subject.
“It was highly biochemical and I didn’t really know how to explain it in Navajo, so I would explain it in English and you could kind of just see there was a disconnect,” he said. “The message wasn’t really getting across.”
The words Martin needed were unfamiliar in English and nonexistent in Navajo.
“There wasn’t a lot of modern-day science terms – how do you begin to describe these things that come from Greek and Latin roots?” Martin questioned.
In 2019, Martin, along with a cohort of scientists, Diné Bizaad speakers and Navajo linguist Frank Morgan, set out to create a resource to solve the problem. The result was a project titled Enriching Navajo As a Biology Language for Education, or ENABLE.
The online dictionary, now about 250 words strong, contains a trove of scientific biological terms on an accessible website with definitions in both English and Navajo.
The language is many centuries old and has been at risk of extinction due in part to residential boarding schools that imposed a violence-driven learning model upon Indigenous students to eradicate their languages. As a result, there were few direct translations for biological terms and concepts that came into common parlance in the last century and a half.
Despite this absence, there are concepts and images that do exist in the Navajo language from which ENABLE’s team could draw.
For example, there was no Navajo word with which to describe positive or negative charge. However, the concept of something moving clockwise, or with the path of the sun does exist. And so, ENABLE’s definition of “proton” is “atom bitsiniltł'ish shá bik'ehgo siláii,” which translates literally to “charge of the atom laid down in the path of the sun.”
Because Navajo is a tonal language, Martin had members of his family record some of the words in the dictionary to preserve the proper pronunciation. This aspect was also critical given that some speakers do not write the language.
The effort to make the project accessible extended beyond just audio recording of pronunciations. The team enlisted the help of Ira Fich, a web developer, to make the website as accessible as possible. Users can find terms alphabetically in both English and Diné Bizaad, and each entry includes a literal translation, as well as a definition and example of use in both languages.
“We can’t just translate Latin words because that doesn’t mean anything to us,” Morgan said. “... Our job was to take these really complex science words and break them down into little bite-sized pieces that scientifically made sense, but also made sense to someone who was learning science.”
The team targeted middle-school level vocabulary because that is where scientific education begins to rely heavily on specific terminology, making it also the period at which many students lose interest.
“People have told me that if this is how they were taught science when they were going to school, they would happily be scientists now,” Martin said.
ENABLE’s founders consulted with high school teachers on Navajo tribal land and prioritized translating certain terms based off that research.
Although it may have started as a way for Martin to share his doctoral thesis on worm embryology with his family, the dictionary is not just about making the minutiae of Western science accessible to Navajo speakers. Martin said it can also unlock a broader understanding of Indigenous knowledge.
Martin points to a 2017 study as evidence of exactly the sort of knowledge that the dictionary can help bring to light. A master’s student at Northern Arizona University found that traditional blue corn-based dishes that contain juniper ash are providing a critical nondairy source of calcium to Navajo people, many of whom are lactose intolerant.
He says the dictionary could also be useful were the Navajo Nation to lift the tribal ban on genetic research, which has been in place since 2002. The ban was instituted over concerns that Navajo genetic material was being mishandled, but is now reportedly under reconsideration. The tools provided by the dictionary could allow researches to explain their work to community members who previously lacked the tools to comprehend it.
The creators of the dictionary have also been quite conscious to avoid listing terms for concepts or practices that remain sacred within the community and are not to be shared outside of it.
Although work on the dictionary began before the COVID-19 pandemic, it surged in relevance once biomedical words suddenly populated all forms of media. Martin is conducting his postdoctoral research in St. Louis, but he said he heard that anecdotally, health care workers were using the dictionary on their phones in clinical settings to communicate with Navajo patients.
“There aren’t many fluent Navajo speakers, and the people who do hold the knowledge are elders and my family’s generation and they were getting hit the hardest with (COVID-19),” Martin said. “It was a race against the clock to document these things now before we reach a point where we’re going to lose this knowledge forever.”
Martin and the ENABLE team hope to finish recording and defining all 250 words in their catalog before ultimately compiling a middle school science textbook in the Navajo language.