Friday, October 08, 2010

The Chamorro Language is Disappearing

 I'm writing my column for next week's Marianas Variety and I've hit a bit of a dead end.

The month of October is full of Chamorro related events, with the Micronesian Island Fair next week, as well as the Mina'Kuattro na Konferensian Chamorro. The week after there are Chamorro Language Forums for Senatorial and Gubernatorial candidates at UOG.

With all these things going on, I decided that for next week I would write on the Chamorro language.

A few weeks ago, Pa'a Taotao Tano' released the results of its six-month study on the state of the Chamorro language on Guam. Two years ago, I helped write a similar grant for the San Diego-based Chamorro organization CHELU Inc, which was meant to study the health and use of the Chamorro language in the San Diego area. These sorts of studies are always both depressing and irritating. First, since the data is based on self-reporting the almost always over-estimate the levels at which people are using the language and the levels at which people are fluent in it. Second, despite these statistical inflations the numbers are still always shocking and na'ma'a'nao.

The Pacific Daily News article which covered the release of the Pa'a Taotao Tano' study sported the title "Chamorro is 'sort of' disappearing." Ha estotba yu' este na titilu. This is one of the frustrations of the effort to revitalize the language, or to bring it back. For all intents and purposes, Chamorro is not sort of disappearing, it is disappearing. The levels at which children, the demographic upon which the future of the language are obtaining the language and using it are so poor, you might as well already call the language dead.

Gi entre i manamko' bula sina mamfino' Chamoru, lao para i otro na gurupun idat, i mas hoben i gurupu, i mas hassan i sina fumino' Chamoru. Para kada na matai na amko' (ni' sina fumino' Chamoru), ti tinatahgue ni' un hoben (ni' sina fumino' Chamoru). Annok na manmemenggua.

If 1 in 5 people on Guam can speak Chamorro, but the overwhelming majority of those who can speak are in the oldest age group, then the language is either dead or near death.

This is not one of those battles, where we should focus on minute positives or miracles in order to understand the whole. This is a time where we need to comprehend this crisis in its fully, horrid magnitude. We cannot let ourselves get distracted by the fact that my daughter can speak Chamorro, or that one of your cousins is taking her kids to Hurao and can speak Chamorro. These isolated, random instances of kids speaking or learning Chamorro add up to almost nothing. They are manufactured miracles since most of those kids are likely to regress in their abilities once they leave the comfort of the Chamorro language daycare or after school program and are forced to rejoin the realities of language life on Guam. These small examples change almost nothing, Guam itself has to change in order for the language to come back. The value and the meaning which was stripped from the language so long ago still hasn't come back. Even if we can now say how important the language is, that importance only goes so far and tends to remain in rhetoric alone, without any action to back it up.

In the column that I was writing for the Variety, I tried to convey my anger and frustration about the Chamorro language today, by using the metaphor of it being like an abandoned couch in an apartment complex. Needless to say, the attempted was not successful, as the metaphor worked up until a point, and then just got weird.
It seems like the island has resigned to treating the Chamorro language the way people treat some beautiful piece of abandoned furniture in apartment complexes. It may have had some value a long time ago, and it might be something cool to look at and talk about, but now its faded and stained and while you could get a couple friends and lug it into your place, there are so much nicer furniture sets out there that you could spend your money on. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one wants to do anything about it, except wait for the day when somehow it just disappears and it’s no longer your problem. Then you can stop thinking about it, thinking about how you should do something about it.

I'm often times feel that I'm the harshest person out there who actually wants the Chamorro language to come back. I'm very pessimistic and very blunt and don't mind blaming things on people where most would say it is merely "the system's" or "colonialism's" fault. Most people fill their mouths with platitudes and fantasies that make them feel like things are getting better and things are improving. After writing the paragraph above, I figured it was too harsh, even if I still feel its true. It is part of the unspoken sort of baggage of Guam. The majority of people, the majority of Chamorros do not speak Chamorro, and so the ability to speak the language is becoming more and more abnormal, especially as we look to younger and younger demographics. The facade of the language being important while the reality is that people don't value it, can only last for so long. It is already starting to crumble and will eventually break and then there will be no pretense that the Chamorro language should ever come back or should even really be spoken. I already detected a shift in some of the projects my students were supposed to do for my English Composition class. They were supposed to conduct an analysis of a political candidate's positions, and then decide whether or not the candidate would be a good or bad leader for Guam. I was surprised at how many candidates stated in the interviews they did with students, that Chamorro language should not be taught in schools and that non-Chamorros should not have to learn to speak Chamorro. Two generations ago, candidates would have scoffed at the idea that Chamorro should be spoken at all, things changed after that and then every candidate had to say that speaking Chamorro was important. We are headed into a future where things will shift, and the Chamorro language will not be a language for all of Guam, but only for Chamorros and since Guam belongs to the US and not Chamorros, they have no right to force it upon people.

The DEIS and FEIS both admitted to how the influx of people and changes in society because of the military buildup will lead help lead to a dilution of Chamorro language, culture and political power and it will not be long before this does start to manifest. It is for that reason that I always feel like we shouldn't fool ourselves, we shouldn't pretend that things are better than they are, and shouldn't act like the fact that one or two kids in your extended family are in Hurao or the Chamorro Daycare that the language is on its way to coming back. The reason those examples and that hope that things are improving are dangerous is because of the way they allow people to feel exempted from doing their part. Those scattered examples of Chamorro-speaking families take the place of the rest of us, they are the ones that we are proud of and happy that they exist, since it means that the burden of teaching your own kids Chamorro, or learning the language yourself is taken off yours and everyone else's shoulders.

Every child who speaks Chamorro today is a miracle, but as I've often written before, these miracles are easily squandered and wasted. A miracle on its own achieves or does very little, it is after all just a foundation. A piece of impossibility, the chance for a new path or new direction handed to people, which can be wasted just as easily as it can made use of.

There was no real point to this post, it was written out of frustration, irritation and anger. The Chamorro language can absolutely come back, it can become a healthy and vibrant language again. But we can only start reversing its downward spiral when we recognize its true state and what are the real things which are holding it back and keeping it dying.

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