Friday, May 30, 2014

Language Pockets


Next week I'll be starting my Chamorro summer classes, and so those who are on Guam and interested in attending need to get in contact with me to learn the meetings dates and times. I've had these Chamorro classes for four years now, and they are alot of fun for me, and a good way to test out things that I eventually use when I teach Chamorro in a more formal setting. Below is a narrative I put together to shed light on how the classes evolved.

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I did not grow up speaking Chamorro. I am what is referred to as a “non-native” Chamorro language speaker. I only learned to speak Chamorro after taking classes at the University of Guam and also convincing my grandparents to speak to me in Chamorro. My experience in learning Chamorro was difficult. While I was supported by some, too many others were not supportive and were very counter-productive in my learning. The Chamorro language has come to the point where it is not quite dead, but clearly dying. Those who speak the language consistently do not speak it to their children or to their grandchildren. Those who attempt to learn the language are more often criticized unfairly and unnecessarily for the way they speak, instead of being supported and nurtured.
I am far from the only person my age or close to my age who has had a burning desire to learn to speak Chamorro, but I am sadly the one person amongst my friends and family who did not grow up speaking Chamorro, but learned it as an adult. Once when talking to Peter Onedera about his experiences teaching Chamorro at UOG for many years, he lamented that in all his years of teaching, and all the hundreds of students who said they were committed to learning the language and becoming fluent, only two actually went on to learn the language after taking his classes. It is clear that the interest is there, but people lack the support or the means to really become fluent.
In order to learn Chamorro in today’s Guam, you must have a very thick skin. You have to be able to deal with so many people who will lecture you, who will make fun of you, who will challenge your Chamorro, in ways which work against any efforts to revitalize the language. Rather than support, they tear you down and make it far more difficult to learn a language that everyone should support the return of.
Since Chamorro culture today has become to resistant to people learning and actively using the Chamorro language, networks of support for Chamorro language learners have to be created. If you are not fortunate enough to have a close relative or a close friend who can sustain you through the learning process, then you will most likely fail, and go nowhere. It is for this reason that in Fall of 2010 I started to hold informal, free Chamorro lessons, open to anyone interested in learning.
In years prior I had experimented with small language groups, both online and in person. They never resulted in much because the lure of English was often too strong. People would struggle with the Chamorro become embarrassed and simply use English since it was less stressful. Also, in these earlier language circles we were all equals, fellow students or activists and so while we could practice together, imparting lessons was often difficult.
These lessons I began anew in Fall 2010 were somewhat different. I started them at the request of several UOG students who were already taking Chamorro classes, but worried that their lessons wouldn’t be sufficient. For this first set of meetings, we met once a week, and each meeting would consist of a grammar lesson, and then be supplemented with the students providing a list of English words that they wanted to know in Chamorro, that would then be used with the new grammar that they had learned. This helped student participation since I wasn’t just giving them a list, but they were actively picking which words they thought would help them the most in speaking Chamorro.
During the course of these lessons, people interested in joining in were allowed, and we even made lessons available online so that those off-island could join via Skype. The Skye lessons proved difficult and were stopped within several months as the internet connection was sometimes unreliable and people who were skyping did not give their full attention to the lessons and so learned very little. The small setting was very good in establishing the foundation for Chamorro grammar. With only a few students, people could ask whatever questions they wanted comfortably, and were forced to pay attention and engage.
The first grammar lessons dealt with the four basic pronoun types and the ways of making different types of sentences. In this setting, students learned quickly and easily the pronouns for 1st person, 2nd person and 3rd person singular, but continued to struggle with retaining and using effectively the rest of the pronouns. I was impressed with how much people were able to retain though since this was not a regular classroom and that it was truly up to them how much they learned, and so I agreed to teach a second set of lessons in Spring 2011.
For Spring 2011, the size of the class increased to 10, as others heard about the lessons and joined in. Although I had some students who were already secure in the most basic elements of Chamorro grammar, given the large number of new students and the fact that it is still good to review, I started over with the lessons. In this larger group, the format was expanded to also allow for practice partners, and so after each grammar and vocabulary lesson, people would be divided into groups of 2 or 3 in order to form sentences. For this second set of lessons, we also began to incorporate music into the lessons. When students became proficient enough to understand and form basic sentences I began to give them song lyrics in English to have them translate into Chamorro. They would then sing them in front of everyone else. I also allowed more creative assignments such as love poetry and the creation of soap opera dialogue.
People felt excited about the amount that they had learned during Spring and committed to meeting for Summer 2011. During the summer months we met twice a week. Every Friday we would still have a grammar lesson. Every Tuesday we would meet and practice. This format was initially effective since the small coffee house format is often times ineffective because people are committed learners when they are in their group, but do not attempt to use the language consistently elsewhere. What undid the progress was that it was difficult to keep people coming to the classes consistently during the summer. People went on vacation, they had summer work, they wanted to rest and chill. Attendance dropped off as the summer went on, going from 10 to 4 or 5.
It was during the summer months that I also began to give homework assignments in order to try and get students to use Chamorro language elsewhere and not just in class. These assignments ranged in making simple sentences, writing stories, writing conversations. Given the summer months and the fact that this was not a class where I was giving grades, these assignments were very ineffective.
I began in Fall 2011, and did away with the paper homework assignments and also through the recommendations of those attending, designed a few new strategies for teaching Chamorro. The attendance for Fall 2011 has been roughly 6 each week. We reduced the meetings to once a week again, each Friday. Instead of beginning again, since the majority of those in attendance had some foundation in the Chamorro language, we continued on with lessons moving into more complex grammatical forms, such as the proper ways to use certain prefixes and suffixes. As we progressed into the complexity of Chamorro I was always careful to make clear that there are many ways of speaking Chamorro, and so while I might teach one way, I would often address the other ways of saying something or using certain words. It was important to be open and be tolerant about the language and not to be condemning of differences and especially to let people explore how to say things.
Some of the changes that were made this time are as follows: A Twitter account was created by myself, and I encouraged those attending classes to get a Twitter of their own. Through this account I would periodically tweet in the Chamorro language, questions or remarks, to which students were supposed to respond. Unfortunately there was only one type of response that students consistently responded to, and that was when I would Tweet “Hafa na Kanta?” and then provide a short excerpt from a popular English language song, translated into Chamorro. People would have to translate it and then tweet back to me what the name of the song was. This game aspect was very popular.
Since Twitter was not reliable in terms of getting people to respond in the Chamorro language, I decided a more simplistic way, and developed an email list of people. Through this email list I would send out twice or thrice a week, a Chamorro sentence, generally a question. It would be up to each person to email back with a response. They were encouraged to write as much or as little as they want. Response to this has been fairly good, although some people never respond, I have developed a small group of people who respond to every email. It is apparent from their emails that they are improving.
I found that by now people were able to write in Chamorro, but still had trouble comprehending Chamorro and listening to it or reading it. For Fall 2011 I made two changes to my format to help deal with this. First, every class begins with the hearing of a Juan Malimanga comic read out loud. After it is read, it is repeated by the group and then they work together to translate it. Secondly, each meeting will also have some text written in Chamorro, which the group also has to listen to and translate. This text can be a song, an advertisement, an article, a children’s book, a letter, anything. This has helped greatly because it reminds people that Chamorro is not just a language that is in the mouths of just a handful of people, but it is something that has been written down and is capable of deep thoughts.
One of the drawbacks to this way of having people practice and learn is that when I read things out loud to them, they tend to guess translate them based on the presence of a familiar word or an English sounding word. Rather than try to take apart the sentence as a whole, they hear a word that sounds familiar and then guess the meaning of the sentence based on that.
Since the start of these language groups I have consistently encouraged participants to find a language partner, usually an older relative fluent in the language, who they can regularly meet with or talk with in order to practice what they learn in our meetings. Those who have progressed in the learning have this support, as it helps them get the language out of their head and out of their lessons and into their mouth and into their world. Part of the effectiveness of these groups will be how well people can find support outside. One possible strategy to help this, might be to have the group leader talk to the potential partners of participants in order to help convince them to try to speak to the person only in Chamorro to help immerse them in the language.
As I look back on the year and a half that I’ve been teaching the Chamorro language in these small groups, I can attest to them being very effective in getting people to understand and learn the grammar.  I have 3 students so far, who if they put more effort and became dedicated, could be comfortably fluent in Chamorro in 6 months. What is missing from my current format is the means to get people to practice more and give them that space for just using the language, making mistakes and learning from their mistakes. Getting comfortable using Chamorro in front of other people and getting comfortable using it when talking about various things. I definitely see one possible improvement for Spring 2012, is to provide two meetings again, one for lessons and the other for just speaking and conversing. The main component that is missing is that practicing of the language, and since students are not taking the initiative to use it on their own outside of the group, the group has to shift slightly in order to help give them a little boost first.

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