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Being a student of Chamorro over the past year and counting has been quite a journey. As we begin this new month of honoring and seeking to perpetuate the ancient language of the Taotao Chamoru, I’d like to offer a few reflections on what it has meant to me to be a student and some of the challenges and learning experiences that I have faced.
Immersion is (still, always) the best, most natural method. Just auditory repetition, and then oral repetition. Slowly the more familiar phrases will become firmer in your memory, and their grammar will help you remember the rules for other phrases and complete sentences as well.
Don’t skip the foundation. At first (and sometimes still now), I would mix up my pronouns or use the wrong verb because I had rushed through or ignored that part of the lesson. You have to learn the scales before you can play Mozart (or — let’s be more realistic — “Chopsticks”).
Be very careful where your language instruction comes from. In an ideal linguistic world, all the Chamorro-language-related media and products out there would give you a good, solid idea of the pronunciation and the grammar. But, a few (at least) actually fall short of this. While celebrating some aspects of i Kotturan Chamoru very movingly, and being probably very well-meaning efforts, some Chamorro-based or -focused media/materials do not really teach anyone to speak or use the language properly and are not actually produced by people who speak the Chamorro language fluently (or at all). So, be careful. Don’t fall for the flashy PR campaigns or the government grants and all of that flimflam. Look for actual substance — for people who can speak the language fluently and are trained in pedagogy.
Hurao Academy and Sågan Kotturan Chamoru and the Chamorro Studies Program at UOG have substance. There, you will find Chamorro language and culture being passed on to younger generations by indigenous Chamorro people who are both fluent in the language and skilled in the culture — people who are both truly, unapologetically passionate about what they do and very much open to including their broader community in the effort as well.
Supplement your linguistic education with cultural experience. Commentary to one of Chamorro poet Cecelia Perez’s poems suggests that experiencing and performing culture (weaving, harvesting indigenous produce, etc.) is an amazing way to understand the Taotao Mo’na who practiced these traditions long ago.
About 40% of the Chamorro language demonstrates heavy Spanish influence, the result of Spanish colonization. I admire and I fully, fully support the Fino’ Håya movement, which is so beautiful, but I also want to show respect for the many fluent native speakers of Chamorro (especially elders) who do regularly use the Spanish-derived words. In my own usage, I definitely make a serious effort to use the Malayo-Austronesian terms (or modern variations!) over the Latinate ones as much as possible. This is for my own educational goals. It’s important to be a listener and a learner, for me, personally, and not impose my own ideas on the culture or the language.
You see, I am not of Chamorro (or indigenous Pacific Islander) descent. However, studying the language — both in informal settings like Dr. Bevacqua’s free Friday noon classes at Java Junction and in more formal ones like Ms. Mendiola’s classroom at the university — has given me an appreciation not only for the beauty of this ancient Malayo-Austronesian language, but for the Chamorro people and culture as well. I’ve gotten involved to a small extent with the ongoing struggle for self-determination and become more aware of the political situation in which I am living here on Guam. I think it would behoove anyone who is living on Guam or wants to know more about the situation here to give some honor to the ancient people of this land and learn enough of their language and culture to be able to show respect for the Chamorro people today, their descendents.
Engaging in conversation gi Fino’ Chamoru (in the Chamorro language) and being forced to construct sentences on the fly, as it were, is probably the best learning tool I could recommend. It is thrilling and daunting, but it really works. That is how you learn — with a fluent Chamorro speaker, who readily corrects you and explains the proper usage — and surrounded by fluent Chamorro speakers, who use the language in everyday speech.
Writing gi Fino’ Chamoru has helped me also. I spent maybe two or three hours sweating madly over an essay on breastfeeding (back when I was all enraged at UOG professors kicking students out of class for breastfeeding — despite the Nana yan Påtgon Act) gi Fino’ Chamoru. It was bloody, sweaty, grueling work for me. For anyone who actually knew Chamorro, the essay probably would have seemed quite rudimentary! But for me, it was an intensely beneficial learning experience. (The essay began just as a challenge I assigned myself, but I ended up sending it in to the PDN.)
“Repetition is the mother of all learning,” a long-ago math teacher told me, and nothing could be truer. As a teacher myself, I try to keep that in mind.
Translating written material from English into Chamorro was also beneficial. I have come to learn a little more about the Chamorro language’s structure this way. It’s not easy, but it’s useful especially in learning new vocabulary words.
I’ve heard various ways people have attained fluency in adulthood. One woman told me she had taught herself Chamorro by listening to it on tapes. Really, immersion in a Chamorro-only environment would be the ideal way for me, I think. Since I cannot have that, I am progressing more slowly, but I am determined to continue.
Learning a new language is such a gift for our brain. It is difficult, but amazingly rewarding. I hope you all will find inspiration and joy in the Chamorro language this month.
Biba Fino’ Chamoru!