By Robert Underwood
For over three decades, I have been a participant in the discussion about the future of the Chamorro language. In the beginning I was strident but in recent years I have been more reflective.
For me, the objective of keeping the Chamorro language alive remains one of my strongest personal passions. I am fortunate that I can speak and write Chamorro reasonably well. I tried to pass it along to my own children but with only moderate success among the older ones.
In addition to this, it was part of my professional responsibility for nearly two decades as a bilingual educator and teacher trainer.
Looking back on my personal and professional efforts and based upon the declining use of Chamorro in the public sphere, I feel like I have failed. I am part of this general failure when it comes to saving the Chamorro language.
In recent years, the cause of protecting the Chamorro language has become increasingly popular among elected officials and has made it into renewed legislation. Earlier this week, it made it into Gov. Eddie Calvo's State of the Island speech. These are good-faith efforts and I don't doubt their sincerity, but one can't help but be bemused by individuals who argue passionately for something they don't do themselves. It is as if we were being admonished to exercise by people who never get off the couch.
Solution: Use the language
The solution to saving Chamorro is obvious -- don't encourage its use by others; use it yourself. Use it daily. Use it in some fashion other than the word of the day. At the word of the day rate, we will be into the 22nd century before we repeat one word.
Use it like a language is meant to be used. When in school, teach it. Teach it as a language, not as part of another activity. Don't substitute dancing or basket weaving or hut making for it and then claim that you are teaching language through activities that may be worthwhile, but they don't really teach language.
It seems that we want others to use it and others to teach it, but nobody wants to use it themselves or really learn it. The Chamorro language is an object to be admired, not a tool for expression or a conduit for a culture.
The solution is obviously not just more mandates in school, although that is part of a broader solution. If we are going to create a Chamorro-speaking community, we must have Chamorro language immersion programs starting next year with very young children. The Hurao Academy carries this out with great success with a small number of children. Let's replicate this for hundreds of children at public expense. It won't be for everybody, but it should be made available to anybody who wants it.
We can continue with the Chamorro language mandate for everyone else. But nobody can seriously think that a language can be taught via elementary school lessons of 20 or 30 minutes daily in which choral reading, choral responses, singing and activities take central focus. If the children already spoke Chamorro, these would be great ways to reinforce their knowledge.
Moreover, in order for people to take this subject seriously, assess the progress in the same way you would assess any school subject. Where are the Chamorro language assessment instruments and when will they be administered to the children?
Schools cannot be the only institution that provides support or a venue for Chamorro language use. It must be used in the public sphere in a way that is friendly and encouraging and can be embraced by all. This can be done via local TV and radio stations, government agencies and religious institutions.
Of course, the university needs to step up itself and provide the intellectual infrastructure for the Chamorro language. We recently began a Chamorro Studies program. We will see how many people are interested, but we will provide the necessary support for the broader community while we study the language in depth.
There will be those who argue about language and utility as an economic issue, as a historical fait accompli or as a matter of social and cultural oppression. There will be those who will argue that mandates offend choice and freedom. All of these arguments about the role of language in any society have been around for decades. I have heard most of them.
The reality is that preserving the Chamorro language is a worthwhile objective for Guam. Spending common resources on what makes Guam unique is not wasteful. It is at the core of who we are as a society and as a people.
Next time you say "hafa adai," try to imagine all the words, thoughts, feelings, ideas and emotions that are part of the language and people that produced this elegant but simple greeting.
I thought that simple words like hafa adai and manamko' were generally comprehensible in Guam. I recently drove through a fast food restaurant. I was greeted with a friendly hafa adai. I was asked what I wanted, I said I wanted oatmeal and a manamko' coffee. I was charged the regular coffee. I raised my voice and told the young lady that I asked for a manamko' coffee. She told me that the restaurant only served regular or decaf. I am willing to bet that this young lady probably took Chamorro in school years ago. She can recognize her colors and count to 10 or 20 and sing "Fanohge Chamorro." But this amko' could only get regular or decaf.
Maila' ya ta satba I lengguahe-ta!