The State of Chamorro Language
Here is the draft I have so far, my thoughts and then at the end a list of recommendations:
2005 was marked with an incredible moment of hope for those concerned with the future of Chamorro language, as Governor of Guam Felix Camacho declared that the year would known as Añon Fino’ Chamorro yan Kottura, or “The Year of Chamorro Language and Culture.” The principles of this year long celebration of the history and future of the Chamorro people were Inina (Enlightenment), Deskubre (Discovery) and Setbisiu (Service).
Unfortunately, this incredible “talk” of cultural and linguistic revitalization was accompanied with very little “action.” As one employee at the Department of Chamorro Affairs during this year noted, “What did it mean, its not like us in the office who should have been doing something different, did anything different.” Despite a glowing resolution from the Guam Legislature in support of Camacho’s proclamation, there seemed to be little leadership on this issue from the Government of Guam. For whatever reason, little action was taken on this bold initiative, and thus the state of Chamorro language use and vitality has continued to decline. This disconnect is not limited to government inaction however, but reflects a larger problem found throughout homes in Guam, where the talk of language preservation or revitalization is loud and forceful, while the action is constantly left up to others or refused completely.
The 2000 Census indicated that 22% of people on Guam can speak Chamorro. Given that Chamorros make up close to 37% of Guam’s population, 20% of those accounted for in the census claiming to be fluent in the language, might not seem so dire. There are however two reasons to support the opposite belief. 1. Having conducted a number of my own surveys on Chamorro language and done my own research on language attitudes, the 22% number is inflated first because of the tendency to over-report language capabilities (for example, in a number of surveys Chamorros who participated claimed to understand and speak Chamorro because of the two dozen words or phrases they knew) and second, because of the tendency to conflate and confuse comprehension with speaking fluency (for example the chances of someone who only understands Chamorro passing on language fluency to another or younger person is minimal). 2. By canonical linguistic standards Chamorro on Guam is already a “dead language,” as the young generation has little to no fluency in it, and the majority of the 22% speaking population is well advanced in age. This of course means that, unless there is a drastic change shift in Chamorro language fluency amongst younger populations, that 22% could drop drastically in a very short amount of time.
The Chamorro music industry, which has helped to sustain the fluency and the positive language attitudes of older Chamorros has begun to decline slightly in recent years. According to a producer at one of Guam’s largest recording studios there are two primary reasons for this decline. 1. Many artists have slowed their production of new albums because the pervasiveness of CD “burning” has led to an overall decrease in record sales. 2. As the population of Guam shifts so that those who speak and understand Chamorro become a smaller and smaller minority, artists are shifting their creativity and albums to match the language fluency of their audiences. In the past year for example, a number of new CDs from established Chamorro groups have come out either “mostly in English” or entirely in English.
Connected to this point, is the fact that when young Chamorros branch out into new musical genres, the lack of their fluency in Chamorro leads the result of their creativity energies to be largely in English. A quick tour of the social/networking website Myspace will reveal dozens of young Chamorros in the Marianas and in the states who are actively creating music and promoting themselves. Rarely any of these artists however are using or even capable of using the language in their rap, hip hop, pop, ska, rock or rhythm and blues songs.
The lack of language fluency amongst Chamorros has clear historical causes, in the intense and often personal period of Americanization following World War II. Each family has their collection of disappointed or regretful anecdotes over being punished for speaking Chamorro in school, listening to parents speak to each other in Chamorro yet the kids in English, and the linking of Chamorro language and Chamorro accent to lack of success, and the lack of Chamorro language and Chamorro accent to success and better economic opportunities.
Given the prevailing antagonism to Chamorro language in post-war Guam, the mere fact of its incorporation into public school curriculum in the 1970’s and its inclusion (didide’ ha’) in the formerly “English Only” Pacific Daily News, represent moments whereby dramatic shifts in language attitudes can take place. For an incredible number of reasons however, the opportunities that these moments represent have not been taken advantage of. Today, the landscape of Guam is not nearly as anti-Chamorro language as it once was, yet the language loss which was at the core of English Only policies continues along largely undeterred.
One clear reason for the continuing language loss is the narrowness of the incorporation of Chamorro language in public schools. Chamorro is taught not as a “language” but as a “foreign language.” Rather than being the key language of instruction, the means through which the world is opened up through systems of traditional/accumulated knowledge to the minds of those on Guam, Chamorro language is reduced to an accompanying language only. Hardly a necessity, it is instead a luxury language, which accompanies the real language of instruction and reality, English. In other words, once fluency in English has been secured, then, only then can kids even begin to start really learning Chamorro.
The low value/ priority of Chamorro language is further made clear by the regular subordination of Chamorro language teachers and classes. As one Chamorro teacher has called it they are “sub-teachers,” or the first ones to have their classes cancelled if something needs to be made up, and usually the first to lose their space when space becomes scarce.
Furthermore, there is little to no immersion infrastructure to support daily language learning and use. As alluded to before, Chamorro is not the primary language of instruction in any public school programs or classes, there are relatively few spaces which encourage the younger generations to use Chamorro, and language attitudes and habits amongst many of the last fluent generation prevent or hinder its transfer. (1. Although many of the older generation may now regret not passing on the language, the lack of an economy of Chamorro, in contrast to a clear globalized economy for English, prevents many from understanding the importance in teaching children Chamorro. 2. The reality of nearly two generations of Chamorros not speaking Chamorro has had a significant impact on the last fluent generation and their speaking habits and attitudes to younger Chamorros. Most manamko’ have become accustomed to speaking in English only to younger generations and often continue to do so even when spoken to in Chamorro (although nowadays, they will always make known how impressed they are when you speak Chamorro to them)).
Although as will be mentioned later, there are a number of continuing movements and groups which might change this.
Although a little discussed fact publicly, Guam’s current Governor is the first Chamorro Governor of Guam who does not speak Chamorro. In his campaign for Governor in 2002 against Robert Underwood, he shocked a number of Chamorros speakers by participating in a Chamoru Language Forum at the University of Guam, in English. Despite being given the questions ahead of time, so as to prepare his responses in Chamorro with his staff, Camacho gave a short introduction in Chamorro, outlining his respect and love for our language, and then proceeded to respond to all questions in English.
This is sadly, the most tangible outcome to have come out of the prospective shift in language attitudes amongst Chamorros since the 1970’s. The incorporation of Chamorro language into public schools combined with the political status and indigenous rights movements over the past three decades have helped to force a public reckoning and reworking of issues of cultural revitalization, language importance and decolonization into everyday speech and political rhetoric. The long-standing currents towards Americanization amongst Chamorros have not been deterred or stalled by this incorporation, but rather, as in the instance of Camacho, they have been strengthened.
The work of generations of activists have forced everyone on Guam to rethink the notions of progress, success and development as taught by the United States and its emissaries, and thus confront the terrible impacts on the identities and consciousness of Chamorros who have been stripped of their histories, language and in some cases land. But although the lexicon of political status and indigenous rights has now made its way into the everyday conversations of the majority of people on Guam, the spirit and desire for Chamorro self-determination has not, instead issues of Chamorro language value and Chamorro cultural heritage are now linked to being a good American.
After World War II, the best way to be an American was by ridding oneself of as much Chamorro as possible, whether it be language, accent, perceived customs, even names (Guamanian). Today, as we see through the example of Felix Camacho, the best way to be an American is not to get rid of all things Chamorros, but rather to make particular gestures to how important being Chamorro is, while doing little to nothing to realize said gestures. In other words, Chamorro language continues to be lost because instead of being i fino’-ta, i irensia-ta ginnen i mañaina-ta, it is just another tiny piece in the multi-cultural tapestry that makes America great.
Now, it is an important issue amongst Chamorro parents that their children learn to speak Chamorro, yet the fluency level amongst Chamorro families continues to decline, children despite the new openness and support for the importance of the language, people are not teaching and not learning the language in their daily lives. While we can celebrate this openness and the simple shift it represents in moving the majority of people on Guam from antagonism to interested ambivalence, the everyday extinction of Chamorro continues in the crucial difference between merely allowing people to speak the language, and actively encouraging, assisting and teaching them.
This Americanization even of the vitality of Chamorro language and culture has a direct relationship to the lack of knowledge and awareness of Guam’s past and present and therefore future colonial relationship with the United States.
In the early 1900’s American educational and social planners on Guam proposed that the future of Chamorros, their hopes for progress and for survival would depend on how well they would follow the developmental path the United States had laid out for them. Despite the Organic Act of 1950 giving more power to local authorities over local governance, this hijacking of Chamorro futures has for the most part, not been tampered with. For example, up until the 1970’s, Chamorro teachers without questioning their actions, continued the tradition of punishing Chamorro children for speaking their language.
The most significant reason for this continuation of racist colonial perceptions is the thinking that Guam’s political status has fundamentally changed over the past century. With celebrations like Liberation Day, the huge numbers of Chamorros serving in the US military and the inclusion of Guam in programs such as welfare, food stamps and FEMA, the perception is that Guam has moved much much closer to the United States, becoming what Reagan referred to as a “tribute to the selfless spirit of American determination and perseverance.” The reality is very different in that Guam continues to be a colony of the United States, albeit a better funded one now because of its increased strategic military value.
The loss of Chamorro language cannot be attributed to a mutual, democratic decision between two partners and equals, Guam and the United States, whereby they came together, negotiated then and decided as one that Chamorros should give up their language, culture and history because it was the only way to improve their lives. This sort of benevolent framework however is precisely what leads so many Chamorros to accept the current state of affairs on Guam, whether it be increases in the American military presence on Guam, Guam’s status as a colony, or the declining state of our language.
A huge problem in the conceiving of current cultural and social problems on Guam and also in the proposing and planning for solutions is that they are not formulated within a colonial framework. The initial Chamorro language program in Guam was formed under the auspices of bilingual education since that was where they could get it approved and funded, but the tepid results of these program in actually teaching/learning the language and revitalizing it shows the limits, and that merely adding on Chamorro language doesn’t address the fundamental problem of Guam’s colonization and the skewed ways in which we see ourselves in relation to it. Colonization is not merely the lack of representation in government, it extends into the unequal systems of knowledge and commonsense that persist and continue to stimulate or mutilate what is possible.
As more and more Chamorros do not just accept but actively want to be American, the state of Chamorro language becomes one of respectful preservation. Within the current framework of American multiculturalism, we can now be good Americans by respecting our language, by speaking our language. But this mentality merely prepares the language for the museum, it does not seek decolonization, it does not seek to redress the past, heal colonial wounds, it merely wishes to collect what little is left and continue on carrying the American flag. Language preservation is the indigenous accommodation with American colonization and accepts the political status quo, language revitalization is linked to the larger goal of political and cultural decolonization, as it will be accomplished in defiance of the future that American has planned out for us over the past century.
The shift to public acceptability of Chamorro language and culture has paved the way for a number of exciting creative gestures of indigenous incorporation. Clothing lines such as Pikaru, fighting dojos and entertainers such as Malafunkshun have all risen to prominence on Guam through their limited use of Chamorro language and culture in selling their merchandise. Grappling and ultimate fighting clubs or groups have become incredibly popular partially because of their incorporation of indigenous motifs such as language (Fokkai) and notions of proud warrior-like behavior. A huge number of clothing lines have used Chamorro language and humor to sell t-shirts (I’m with ekgo’.) Malafunkshun has gained celebrity status on Guam because of its limited but effective use of Chamorro language and culture, to bring in audiences but not estrange them with unfamiliar Chamorro terms or concepts.
There have been similar successes with Chamorro dance groups such as Taotao Tano’ and Guma Palu Li’e’. The successes of these groups at the local, national and international levels is indicative of the overall positive shift in attitudes with regards to things once considered “ancient” or “gone.” The mainstream acceptance of Chamorro dance groups serves crucial multiple purposes, such as helping older Chamorros reconnect to things they after centuries of colonization could only imagine as something to be denied existence, and younger Chamorros to form a deeper connection to the things that they were not supposed to ever know existed.
We must celebrate these accomplishments, but at the same time note their limitations, most noticeably that the excitement over this indigenous revival has not necessarily led to a revival of the “indigenous language.” A number of indigenous incorporations have taken place, but these moves have not necessarily led to any form of everyday language revitalization, but have instead assisted in creating a movement based on English extrapolation.
English extrapolation is a sort of shortcut to learning a language, it is built around the identification of key tahdong concepts which can be named to prove a cultural (not linguistic) fluency, invoked in Chamorro, but not described, discussed or understood in the language itself. For better or worse, the style of the important Hale’-Ta series has helped to push this type of consciousness, through the use of italicized Chamorro words, such as respetu, inafa’maolek, chenchule’, which stand helplessly alone against a torrent of English words explaining what they mean. Although one could argue that this is the only way to communicate to young Chamorros the meaning of these concepts, it also implicitly instructs them that Chamorro culture is something picked at and lived in small conceptual doses, as opposed to what it must be taught as, an ocean of language, histories, practices and genealogical relationships that engulf and surround us. With this dynamic, more and more Chamorros are learning about their culture, but this learning itself provides a far too easy shortcut where one can feel incredibly indigenous, without actually learning Chamorro language. It is important to remember that these skeletal concepts will not truly be felt and lived until one immerses oneself in the living embodiment of the cumulative struggles and histories of the Chamorro people, which is their language.
(Hu komprende na siña ma tacha yu’ put este lokkue, sa’ yanggen un atan este na tinige’-hu, puru ha’ fino’ Ingles, ya didide’ na fino’ Chamoru manmachalalapon. Put este na ginaddon, gof impottante na kada biahi na guaha mapublish taiguini, ma fa’tinas unu gi fino’ Ingles yan unu gi fino’ Chamoru.)
Given this dire state of Chamorro language I make the following recommendations some based on what is already taking place and being worked on, others which needs to be attended to:
1. Develop immersion schools and curriculum.
2. Develop media designed specifically for helping adult language learners.
3. Develop language support groups and language learning groups.
4. Develop media/programs which does not simply use the Chamorro language, but is designed to encourage youth to take up learning and using the language.
5. Develop mentorship programs designed to transfer different sets of skills, help bridge inter-generational gaps and also facilitate comprehensive skilled language use.
1. There are a number of immersion programs that have already been implemented, each with their own incredible success stories. One existing daycare is already filled beyond capacity, with a long waiting list. Immersion camps and limited immersion classes have been successful in both instilling a basic fluency in Chamorro language and history. The success of these efforts is still hampered by the amount of contact hours with Chamorro language and parental commitment to their children learning to speak Chamorro. According to one Chamorro instructors who is currently holding pilot immersion classes, building towards a larger effort within a year’s time, the perception amongst many of the people who place their children in these camps or classes is that it is just “cultural daycare.” In one such class I visited, one could tell the difference between those children who stayed for the duration of the immersion class, which was 2 ½ hours and those whose parents would pick their children up at any time during the class. Within several weeks, children who stayed for the duration of the class were already fluent in basic classroom Chamorro, while those who would be taken out at random intervals, still could not understand or speak much Chamorro. The immersion school approach can only be as successful as the network of language speakers that help nurture the language in the child. If parents, relatives and others in the community do not help the child with their language learning, then the impact and effect of immersion schools will be severely limited as few young children will have the ability to self-motivate themselves to continue using a language which their community does not seem to readily support or encourage.
2. In the past few years, a number of different texts have been developed to help parents teach their young children how to speak Chamorro. While we should applaud this fact, it is unfortunate that it ignores that increasing demand for language learning media amongst the most needy group, young adult – adult Chamorros. As a young child, the impetus to learn Chamorro either comes from social/educational requirements or at the behest of the parents. As a young adult or adult it is often a self-motivated act, a decision to change the flow of one’s identity or to solve a personal/historical/colonial problem. The successes of different chant/dance groups and activities/media that incorporate indigenous motifs can be linked to this desire. But sadly adults who enter into these activities as previously mentioned are not taught Chamorro language, but instead taught Chamorro culture, history but ultimately through English. Given the biological difficulties for the majority of people in learning a language past childhood and in adulthood, special attention must be made to develop media designed particularly for this group, since it is the most likely to request it and use it.
3. One such way to support language learning amongst young adults – adults is to develop formal/informal groups to facilitate and assist in the process. I have had mild successes with informal language learning groups, which consisted of four – six people who had taken required Chamorro classes in public school, and then one or two college level classes and wished to learn to speak better and then myself. We would meet weekly if possible at a non-academic setting, such as King’s or Shirley’s where for at least one hour, I would encourage those present to use as much Chamorro as they could and then help them in case they had difficulty expressing themselves. If these types of meetings are held on a regular basis, with those who want to learn and someone who is willing to help them learn and not be negative and deter them, then over time you are certain to see as I did, incredible improvements. Language support groups can serve a similar function, but in my thinking exist to offer help services to those learning Chamorro with questions about grammar, vocabulary, definition and history. Since 2003 I have run informal language support groups through my different websites, and the services I have provided to people (primarily high school and college age Chamorros) have ranged from translation of song lyrics, help with Chamorro/Guam history homework, help with spelling/grammar, etc. The need for impartial yet nurturing spaces such as these is that the tendency to tease and be overly critical of young Chamorros who are trying to learning their language often pushes them to give up trying. The drive of these young Chamorros to retake their heritage should not be extinguished because of something as trivial as kase’ and so its important we create a place where they can come to with their questions or confusions so that their passion can be maintained and pushed further and not diminished.
4. The annual competitions in oration, song and dance that take place for Chamorro students are a very good start in promoting language learning and fluency amongst younger Chamorros. What needs to done next is the extension of this type of creative engaged/competitive model to other forms of creative expression, most importantly those recently imported or popularized. For example, amongst young Chamorros today, graffiti culture is very popular. One interesting attempt at this type of engaged interaction might be to hold a graffiti contest, which must incorporate Chamorro language into the design. As each piece is judged, a description must be given by the artists in Chamorro and questions from the judges must be responded to in Chamorro.