Saturday, August 24, 2013

Knowing Japanese

I participated in a round table discussion earlier this week on education in Guam and its relationship to Chamorro language and culture. We were asked to share our viewpoints on different aspects of this issue, ranging from what we might feel public school education on Guam is doing right and what we feel it is doing poorly. The Chamorro language program in DOE is a very curious institutional animal in terms of analysis. Students are mandated to take Chamorro language in both elementary and middle school and can take it as an elective in high school. Compared to other indigenous groups that are trying to revive and institutionalize their languages this is very impressive and Chamorros can be considered to have a real advantage. But the Chamorro language program in Guam's public schools is impressive in the abstract but in practice it is incredibly ineffective.

I polled my students this week about their experiences in Chamorro language classes in DOE. Most focused on the fun activities in their classes, such as weaving and cooking. None commented on learning much of the language, but more about how there were all these fun cultural activities that they got to participate in. The language classes haven't really taught much of the language, but really have ended up enriching students with a shallow understanding of certain Chamorro traditions and given them a minute but decent appreciation for the culture. Given the structural limitations of the Chamorro language program in DOE it makes sense that it would fail at what it appears it is supposed to do. In elementary school they are given approximately 20 minutes a day for instruction, which is almost ridiculous if you think clearly about it. It makes it even more ridiculous when you consider that anytime something needs to be cancelled the Chamorro classes are the first to go. It seemed that too often this past year when I would ask my daughter Sumahi what she did in Chamorro class, she would respond, "taya', ti manhanao ham." And would tell me about how they worked on something else or their Chamorro teacher was watching another person's class.

In general terms (compared to other groups) we are in a very good position, but this is useless since the value of it is really only a perception from the outside. To Chamorros and in terms of our language, the classes fail miserably. This is something that we can lay at the feet of Chamorro teachers, many of them don't feel like their kids want to the learn the language, or that given their constraints its impossible to teach the language and end up doing fun, cultural busy work until the year is over. It can definitely be laid at the feet of administrators who have allowed this program to not do what it is supposed to do for decades, and have not reformed it but just allowed it to continue to be ineffective. DOE has known since the 1970s what it would take in terms of taking the teaching of the Chamorro language to the next level. Either you increase the amount of time for instruction and stop the bullshit of treating Chamorro teachers like they aren't real teachers or you set up an all subjects Chamorro language immersion program focus on the language for just a select group of students and let the Chamorro language classes just focus on cultural enrichment. DOE has for close to 40 years done neither.

The discussion was very lively and touched on so many points that could be done to improve the teaching of the language, but what can really change if administrators don't take the program itself seriously and don't want to put in any effort to reform and improve it?

During the discussion we were asked several questions about our own educational experiences on Guam and I had to admit that my experiences are different than most people my age. I attended private school on Guam and so I never experienced the Chamorro language or culture classes in the island's public schools. The experiences that people had weaving things, making coconut candy or thatching huts were foreign to me because there was no Chamorro class in my school. Instead, in an ironic way that I did not appreciate at the time, we had Japanese language class. We learned dialogues in Japanese, and how to write Japanese characters and even learned several songs. The high point of one of the classes was learning to say The Lord's Prayer in Japanese.

History is such an interesting thing. If you don't know much about it then the present takes on a particular shallow pallor. It has a shiny happy character, a fakeness to it, because of the way it appears only in the now and disconnected from whatever has come before. But the more you know about history, the more surreal, in a deepening and textured sense the world will appear to be. If you recall the vortex, spiraling, rimulinu, uzumaki like feeling that you get when watching The Twilight Zone it can generally feel like that. As if when you stare at something, you can get a sense of the shades of the past in it. As if it appeared like this before, as if the past is pushing through to its surface. You could even say the past pulses through the veneer.

When I thought about my experiences of learning Japanese where most my age on Guam were learning bits and pieces of Chamorros, it actually made me think of my grandparents. I don't remember much of the Japanese I learned in school. I remember some words, some phrases, a couple characters, and the numbers. I only remember one of the songs from my classes, "Hiraita" about the opening and closing of a flower:

Hiraita. Hiraita.
Nan no hana ga hiraita?
Renge no hana ga hiraita.
Hiraita to omottara,
itsunomanika tsubonda.

Tsubonda. Tsubonda.
Nan no hana ga tsubonda?
Renge no hana ga tsubonda.
Tsubonda to omottara,
itsunomanika hiraita.

What is surreal for me is that the amount of Japanese that I remember from my class, is about equal to the amount of Japanese that most Chamorros who survived World War II remember from their time during Japanese occupation. In the heat of war, many Chamorros learned Japanese in order to survive. But after the war, except for those who continued to find ways to use it, most Chamorros started to forget the majority of what they learned, and retained only scattered elements. There were words that were used against them that scarred their minds, especially if their body was being scarred by beatings and torture. There were words that you used to give the Japanese meaning, usually words in their language for unpleasant things. Japanese soldiers who had the characteristics of certain animals were referred to as those animals in Japanese. Soldiers who were bald, fat, smelly, skinny, were given names in Japanese to reflect their appearance. Some songs stuck in the heads of Chamorros just because of the way music has a way of weaving things into the folds of your mind without you even realizing it.

It is strange to me that under very different circumstances I have come to the point where my grandparents are at in terms of knowing Japanese. It is one of those weird twists of history, where you can arrive at the same point through completely different historical paths.

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