Saturday, February 19, 2011
I had helped organize meetings like this many years ago when I was a graduate student at UOG, with others who had gotten a slight foundation in the language from taking classes at UOG, but felt nowhere close to being fluent and found it difficult to find people to practice with. We would meet at places like Kings every week or so and just talk for a while, trying our best to compare notes on what was the proper word to use here, the proper way to say this. If Chamorro was a healthy and vibrant language learning it would be easy, since you would take lessons or read books and then immerse yourself in the language to pick up its flow. But since Chamorro being an official language of Guam is more symbolic than anything else, learning it is much harder than it should be. It becomes this irritating puzzle which lasts for years and years. You learn some ways of speaking in classes, which tend to differ from those you learn at home. And as you use your Chamorro with others and expand your circle, you find that people are heavily invested in the ways they speak and don't respond well when you speak to them in a way that they understand but aren't used to. You will find some people who tell you it is ok to speak a certain way, use a certain word and others who will mock your use of the word and tell you to just stop trying. Guam can be a very hostile landscape for people trying to learn Chamorro nowadays, and peiople may not intend to be hostile or unhelpful, but it really comes down more to issues of ginagu yan mina'a'nao, people are too lazy to help perpetuate the language or too afraid to admit their limits. It is tragic how much effort people put into helping people not try to speak the language instead of supporting those who try.
For those trying to learn to speak Chamorro, some of the character you might find unhelpful along the way are as follows:
Older Chamorros tend to not like it when you use words older then they are which they didn't learn growing up. It doesn't matter if you learned the old word from another old Chamorro person, a dictionary or a Spanish account from Ancient times, if they don't know it, then it can't be a word and so you can't really be speaking Chamorro if you use it. There is a long list of words which are slowly coming back in Chamorro, but amongst older speakers you'll still find incredible resistance, evern after they've come to learn and accept what the word means. Some examples of this are the word hula' which means tongue in contemporary Chamorro, but also has an older meaning of being "swear" as in to make a promise. Most Chamorros nowadays use kontrata or prometi or ofresi to say "promise" or "swear," and so if you do use hula', even though you are technically correct, you will still most likely be told that you aren't speaking correctly.
Amongst younger Chamorros who don't speak the language, actually speaking the language is not what's important, but speaking in the way that sounds "right" is what you are supposed to do. This means that someone who speaks English, but with an accent and some malafunkshun style slang, can be perceived to be more authentic can be interpreted as speaking more Chamorro than someone who actually speaks Chamorro, but who doesn't have some cartoonish Jofis-For-Ofis accent. It is for this reason that many people nowadays too lazy to learn Chamorro will instead hone their chaudy accent, since in the minds of most that's just as Chamorro as being able to communicate in the Chamorro language.
Secondly, people who feel they are very cultured and very Chamorro, even if they don't speak or really understand Chamorro, can often put up a show of judging those learning, despite the fact that they don't really know what they are talking about. These are people who consider themselves to be very Chamorro, but lack that crucial element of actually being able to speak Chamorro. They may have been raised hearing alot of it, or come from a family who is known for it or be the child of some culturally or linguistically famous person, but the language itself eludes them and has eluded them throughout their life. These are people who will say to those learning that "it doesn't sound right" or "I don't think you say it like that." They are people who don't know what is actually wrong with that you're saying, but will still find the latte stones to say you are incorrect. When I was learning to speak the language, I was apalled at how many people fit into this category, and would say they could speak Chamorro, but couldn't, and would find excuses in the way I spoke Chamorro in order to not reveal their inadequacies. This was most apparent sadly in younger Chamorros from the CNMI, who represent the dying tendencies of the language there, but are too proud to admit it, and so instead of working to improve themselves in the language mask their lack of ability, by questioning the abilities of those who do try to learn the language.
Both of these responses stem from the same impulse. A desire to be a master over something, to be able to identify with it very strongly, yet not put in the work or effort to truly occupy that position. Instead they find shortcuts, excuses to not speak the language in order to keep up the facade that they do. They critique in vague and unhelpful ways, focusing on things they think aren't right, in hopes that you won't yell at them "Kao magahet na sina fumino' Chamoru hao?"
The last group that makes things difficult are those who do speak the language, but don't really understand how the language works, and so they teach the language in narrow, limited and generally unhelpful ways.They are people who heavily rely on certain words to say things, regularly make the same types of statements over and over, and have a very limited grasp of the possibility and range of the language. They may only know one of three possible words for something and they may defend ferociously that word as being the only proper one. They will understand what a prefix or suffix means when it is part of one word, but don't understand when it is attached to another word. These are people who can be very closed about the language and tend to react badly to things they haven't heard before. They work to shut down things they aren't used to or don't understand, saying that it isn't really Chamorro. Because of their limited understand of the language, they tend to clamp down on the diversity of the language and instead work to enforce their own particular idiolect as the way things are supposed to be. This is always a sign of a language's poor health, is how many types of registers of the language can be used and understood. When the intolerance for different ways of saying things reaches high levels, it is also discussed in terms of keeping the language pure or proper, but in truth it is keeping the language limited. English is a powerful language because it is flexible and because it can accomodate anything and brings in new words constantly. So many Chamorros keep their language contained and marginal by implicitly and unconsciously assuming that you only use Chamorro language for certain things or that you cannot transform the language as the world around the language changes.
A case in point is the issue of Chamorro being an oral language and therefore not meant to be written down. Such an idea makes some abstract historical sense, but in practical terms is ridiculous. One of reasons English is so significant is because it is one of the strongest written languages out there, and has become the primary means of communication across borders on the internet. Chamorro is the same way, it can remain something from the past that you are supposed to preserve in some silly form, or it can be the things that changes with you as the world changes. Language is not static and should never remain so, it must change to adapt to the world you live in, and so since internet is such a primary means of communication and investigation, if the language is to survive or become healthy, emphasis must be made on converting it to a strong written language.
I am having fun with the new Chamorro language meetings. They are open to anyone who wants to learn and right now I have about half a dozen people who are investing their own time in hanging out with me for two hours each week and listen to be ramble. The happiness is of course tinged with some sadness. When I think back to my early days of learning the language, there were so many people who said, like me that they wanted to become fluent. I remember practicing with people I took UOG classes with, and when I look at them now, unless they already spoke Chamorro prior to coming to class, they still don't speak it today. It depresses me that out of all the classmates I had (that I can remember and still see) and out of the people I used to meet with informally to practice, I am the only one who became fluent in Chamorro. It is a testament to how "unnatural" the language is on Guam today, how one has to work extra hard and struggle quite a bit in order to keep alive its indigenous linguistic heritage.
I hope that of the learners I have now, some of them go on to become fluent in the language. And that they use it with others and most importantly their kids, because as I've written about before many times on this blog, fihu siniente-ku na taiga'chong yu' gi este na lenguahi. I often feel alone in this language, and especially when I think about my daughter Sumahi, and how she will struggle as she gets older to maintain her Chamorro fluency when there is so much pressure to just speak English like everyone else, then I get very worried. When my students asked why I was teaching them, for free, I responded that I want people to talk in Chamorro and I want their kids to talk to my kids and so just about anything I can do to help that, I'll try.
In order to support the new Chamorro language learning group, I even went so far as to sign up for Twitter, and create an account to support our learning. The address is Minagahet so http://www.twitter.com/minagahet. Everyday or so I tweet a sentence or a question in Chamorro and people are encouraged to use what we learned in the past week in order to respond. Just yesterday I tweeted: "Kao geftao pat chattao hao? Ya put hafa na geftao pat chattao hao?" The question being "Are you generous or stingy? And about what are you generous or stingy?" If you'd like to join the lessons, you just have to email me and I can tell you when and where they take place. But if you'd like to follow me on Twitter and join the conversation, just click on the link above.