Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Language Losers

I recently watched the Seinfeld episode "The Move(s)/ Assman," and for me it could used to make a good point about language loss amongst Chamorros. In the episode, Jerry pisses off David Puddy who is the only honest mechanic in New York. So while Jerry tries to find another mechanic after his car starts making noises, he thinks they are all cheating him on their estimates, (making them up). George looks at him like he's a retard and says oh course their making them up, no one knows anything about cars, they could say anything!, Oh looks like you need a new Johnson rod!

Chamorros who are attempting to learn their language as an adult are confronted with something similar. A language which is hardly unknown to them, from which they must rely on mechanics or fluent speakers to help them know it. But the problem is, and what deters alot of Chamorros from following through and actually becoming fluent in the language, is that fact that these mechanics might be cheating them.

I'm writing about this partially out of frustration. I've spent the past few weeks discussing this on my message board and constantly bumping up against people who consider themselves fluent in Chamorro and thus feel that they can proclaim mandates on others about what is proper and improper Chamorro. Here we encounter the infamous Johnson rod. And sadly arguing against this seems to be for most people like arguing against common sense.

Those fluent in Chamorro know all the rules right? They therefore should pass it on, and correct those learning right? In a perfect world perhaps, but sadly alot of times Chamorros learning Chamorro are not being played straight with, and that is what irks me.

When I was learning Chamorro nearly all corrections from those more fluent then me came in the form of, "what you've said is wrong, say it like this-." At first I often heeded this sort of thing, because I felt, well they know it better, I should probably listen to them. But as aI became more fluent, I realized that often times when I was corrected and told that I was wrong, I actually wasn't. The person who had corrected me just had a different preference for speaking, and thus used my lack of knowledge of Chamorro to impose that preference on me as if it was a law written in stone.

Conversations about language loss and survival in Guam tend to center on the young Chamorros who have no interest in learning their language. They fixate the problem on them, (they don't care, they have English everywhere, they don't see the value). But if we are truly serious about this, then that critique must be focused on the fluent speakers as well, because they have played a huge role in confusing and deterring language learners.

Natural speakers of Chamorro are becoming less and less common on Guam, and so what has happened for so many (especially those who are educated) is that their knowledge of Chamorro feeds directly into their ego and they tend to look down on those who don't speak Chamorro. This becomes very apparent in the ways that these Chamorros overcorrect language learners, attempting to expel from the language ways of speech that are different then the way they are accustomed to speaking.

In my interactions with other Chamorros who were attempting to learn Chamorro, there was so much confusion over the behavior of the fluent speakers. These young Chamorros would ask relatvies, parents, grandparents for help in learning the language, yet when they would take their language to others, people would too often rudely tell them that they were incorrect and to speak another way. (I'm not referring here to teasing, but prohibitive statements that you are wrong to speak that way, not you sound funny.)

An interesting schism gets created with this, which is very very similar to what children experienced in pre-war Guam being educated in American colonial schools. What you learn in home would conflict with what you were taught in school and you would be stuck at an impasse, who is correct? The impasse was created because the person who corrected you didn't say that the way you spoke was just another way of saying it, they said that it was wrong.

This egotistical behavior of "natural" or fluent speakers has contributed significantly to Chamorro confusion over language as well as decisions not to learn it and just speak English instead. But sadly, most fluent speakers refuse to even consider this and focus on other things.

Some might think that my comments are overlysensitive, but if you consider the linguistic landscape of Guam today, who is going to learn Chamorro and be overly hassled when you could speak English with less fuss? As I often say, I'm not against correcting those who speak and are not understood, but I am very much in favor of allowing different forms of Chamorro to exist and not impose our personal ways of speaking onto others.

The most common response I get to this, is an annoying common sense remark like "but we have to teach them properly before they can even speak different forms." A ridiculous remark for anyone who actually considers what they are saying. Who decides what is proper? The variations within a language are alot more expansive then people admit to, so who gets to decide what is proper, since to say proper is different to say comprehensible. People might try to make them mean the same thing, but they don't.

Proper is a prescriptive term which is meant to defend and protect a particular way of speaking or thinking, but I feel that this mentality is what will hold us back in revitalizing our language. This overemphasis on semantics and speaking "properly" shows that however much fluent speakers try to defend themselves as preserving Chamorro the way it should be spoken, they are thinking in modern linguistic terms about how a language is supposed to be. Chamorro is an oral language and that is what I love about it. Its creative and supposedly to be constantly changing, using old words for new things, throwing stuff together to form new phrases, etc. But those who overemphasis properness are killing this, by forcing Chamorro to conform to modern and primarily written ways of thinking about language.

I must note though that this is not directed at manamko' or older fluent speakers. My primary concern is fluent speakers who are educated and thus feel that they have all the right in the world to impose whatever they want. They are fluent in Chamorro and fluent in modern thought, so therefore nothing is supposed to critique them right? It is this attitude which I so detest, because these people often claim to be preserving something indigenous and old, etc, yet are just forcing our beautiful language to conform to Western rules.

But of course, this is something that most will never admit to, because they have the fortunate of having the colonizing common sense notions of language on their side. In reality, the most different ways people learn and speak Chamorro the better, and with regards to proper grammar, their may be some points, but not as many as people make it seem. In reality, there are so many variations within a single language that to cling too much to particular forms of grammar show that you're really only thinking of yourself and not the survival of the language.

I therefore challenge people who want to speak Chamorro to perserve despite what anyone says. Be creative with the language, if someone tells you that "that doesn't sound right" but they understand it, continue to use it. Comprehension is the key in language, proper grammar is something which people invented to protect the way they speak. So long as you are understood that is all that matters.

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