Photo by Vincent Camacho on Unsplash
“I don’t understand what you’re saying!” my sister frustratedly exclaimed, standing at the dining table. “She said to close the door and come and eat,” I calmly told her as I casually picked up red rice and påtas babui from my plate. After my sister took her seat at the dining table, my grandma continued to speak in our native tongue while we listened. I could barely make out everything my grandma was saying, while my sister was already lost in thought and confusion. Although it was a sad sight to see, it was something common in our household. My siblings and I grew up speaking English and although our native tongue was spoken in our household, we never made it a priority to fully learn.
My siblings and I, including many others, identify English as our main language. Although it is great and useful to learn English, I cannot exaggerate how many times I heard the phrase “I wish I grew up speaking Chamorro” or “I wish my parents taught me Chamorro.” As time passes, I continue to hear that expression more and witness the effects of not learning the language. Every time I come home, I see kids unable to translate what their older relatives are saying unless their relatives are getting mad. I see elders trying to express how they feel and think but can only explain it in our native tongue and these thoughts are useless to those who do not understand. At every lost opportunity to connect through my language, I think of the phrase, “Yanggin malingu i lingguåhi, malingu i kuttura.” It roughly translates to “To lose a language means to lose a culture.” Chamorro is not just a language; it is the way my people connect. It is tradition embedded in our speech, it is our identity defined by soft pronunciations in our g’s or the way we read the letter y as z. Our language is our culture.
My native language, Chamorro (chuh-maw-row), is an Austronesian language native to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands and is only spoken by less than 100,000 individuals. Over the past couple of years, the rate of individuals speaking Chamorro has gradually decreased to the point that many people consider it to be a “dying language.” The declining rate of Chamorro speakers has raised concern for government and humanitarian officials who have publicly spoken out about the issue. Concerned, many Chamorro-speakers attribute and blame colonization and globalization as some of the main reasons the Chamorro language is dying. Not only does the threatened loss of the language affect the older generations, but the younger generations as well. As showcased earlier through the story of my sister and I, many younger generations are unable to understand and speak Chamorro creating a disconnection with those who speak the language. Other effects also include the loss of identity and culture amongst the younger generations. We must understand why the language is dying and how it is affecting the younger generations in order to find efficient means to revitalize the language.
Since the 17th century, Guam and the Marianas have been colonized by various countries including Spain, Japan, and Germany until the twentieth century when the United States individually took over Guam, then the Marianas. Although each colonial era had an impact on the Chamorro culture, an important aspect of American colonialism in both Guam and the Marianas was English linguistic imperialism. In his book Linguistic Imperialism, Robert Phillipson describes English linguistic imperialism as “that the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (47). The use of English linguistic imperialism was explicitly seen in Guam when the Naval Government enacted the Executive General Order No. 243 making English the official language and forbidding the use of the Chamorro language except for interpretations. Although not as strict, the United States carried out English linguistic imperialism in the Marianas by requiring students to speak English instead of Chamorro. When speaking with my elders about their early education, they would always mention how they were not allowed to speak Chamorro. Their teachers scolded them exclaiming, “Talk in English, not Chamorro!” As a young Chamorro woman not entirely connected to her culture and heritage, it is disheartening to hear because generations before me were forced to disconnect from an important aspect in our lives.
English linguistic imperialism was used to establish the United States and English as the superior civilization throughout the Guam and the Marianas. In his dissertation, “Na’la’la’ I hila’-ta, Na’matatnga I Taotao-ta: Chamorro language as liberation from colonization,” Kenneth Kuper explains how the United States established their dominance and presence, stating, “The colonizers weaken the cultural identity of the colonized by making them abandon their cultural practices and identify with colonial practices” (2). By forbidding the use of the Chamorro language in various settings, the United States was able to establish their superiority through the enforcement of English as the dominant language. This has caused a discontinuity in the amount of Chamorro speakers contributing to the loss of the Chamorro language.
In addition to colonization, globalization has impacted the number of individuals who currently speak Chamorro. In his article, “Colonisation, Globalisation, and the Future of Languages in the Twenty-first Century,” Salikoko S. Mufwene explains globalization to be an “…interconnectedness of parts of a complex system...” (166). Many of these parts include economic expansion, resources, and changing technology. Salikoko also attributes the loss of languages and globalization to its native speakers. As economies grow and expand, individuals will look towards developing as well. Many individuals begin using languages that are common between the involved parties. Currently, these business-leading languages are English, Chinese, Spanish and more. These individuals grow accustomed to using these languages, associating them with positive connotations such as opportunity, development, and financial growth. In The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, authors Peter Austin and Julia Sallabank analyze globalization’s effect on languages, stating, “… language shift is frequently driven by socioeconomic factors; in this respect, a shift to English can provide speakers with employment and access to international networks” (21). These positive connotations instill a sense of commodity and cause biases to form against native languages. Individuals begin to perceive their native languages as “backwards” and thus, do not value their native tongue.
As I pass through a gift shop, I see American flags hanging on the walls, classic iconic American movie star posters, and even a cutout of Donald Trump with a plastic lei on his neck. I run my hands through colorful bags with the stitching Saipan, Where America’s Day Begins. On an island whose economy is reliant on tourism, I wonder why we do not advertise our culture more. I do not see CNMI or Guam flags, nor do I see anything actually traditionally made by native crafters. It is evident that globalization is prevalent in Guam and the Marianas. Individuals no longer look towards their culture, but other cultures. We do not hold our culture or language to any economic value, forgetting it as we move forward into the twenty-first century.
Many young individuals, including myself, have moved forward without our culture embedded into our very lives. Not only does colonization and globalization affect our language, but all parts of our culture such as traditions, arts, and even beliefs. This has taken a toll on much of our identity especially when compared to the older generations. In his article “Indian Identity,” Nicholas Peroff explains, “Indigenous identity is connected to a sense of peoplehood inseparably linked to sacred traditions, traditional homelands, and a shared history of indigenous people” (486). Because younger generations are disconnected from various parts of their culture, we fail to understand who we are or where we come from. We associate ourselves with other cultures and lifestyles, failing to recognize our own.
Disconnections and intentional disassociations with the Chamorro culture have been going on for many years. It has not only occurred with the current generation, but previous generations as well. In Elizabeth Diego’s dissertation, “Reclaiming identity in articulating what it means to be Chamorro: A phenomenological study of the indigenous people of Guam,” she tells various stories of Chamorro people and their perspective of their individual identity. One story, Vince’s story, speaks about how he began to question who he was after entering college. He admitted how negative connotations of being Chamorro and his disconnections affected who he was, recalling, “When I decided to leave the island to pursue school, I decided I was going to do everything American. I wanted to be American, anything and everything and soak up as much as I could. I wanted to change my accent and do what everyone else was doing” (248). Vince’s story is just one clear example of what is happening today for many young Chamorro individuals. It is only when we are faced with trying to connect with who we are do we realize we are disconnected. Continuing with Vince’s story, he explains how he struggled with his identity saying:
Being exposed to others who weren’t afraid to express who they were culturally, ethnically, led me to look at myself. I started to search who I was and the questioning began when I left island. I was so disillusioned about the fact that I couldn’t speak my language and didn’t know a whole about my history. I started asking myself why. (246)
After this encounter, Vince was able to reconnect to his language and culture, learning what it means to be Chamorro. He took initiative to learn the history, practices, and language of the Chamorro culture that he finds himself more connected than he was as a young adult. Many young Chamorros including myself could use Vince’s initiative as an example of ways we can reconnect with our identity and culture.
Like Vince, it is important that younger generations, too, begin connecting with their culture. Many have argued that the main way of reconnecting is through understanding the language. In an effort to revitalize the Chamorro culture, many government and humanitarian officials have spoken about the issue and worked towards various efforts to revitalize the language. One such effort is the Pacific Island Bilingual Bicultural Association (PIBBA), a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting bilingual bicultural activities with thin the Pacific. During a PIBBA’s conference in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Rose Taimanao-Jones, president of the PIBBA on Saipan, endorsed the program and emphasized its importance to revitalizing the Chamorro language and culture declaring, “If we do not support organizations like PIBBA, our people and our existence will be extinct” (Salinas, “A dying language”). PIBBA is one example of how people are fighting for the existence of their culture. In addition to PIBBA, there are many other revitalization efforts such as festivals, cultural immersion programs, cultural groups, etc.
One such effort that I have witnessed is the Flame Tree Arts Festival. The Flame Tree Arts Festival is an annual three-day festival in Saipan that features the Mariana Islands’ artists of all kinds, locally made food, exhibitions from various humanitarian agencies, and performances from many performers and dance groups. As I reminisce, I remember walking through crowds of people, smelling barbeque and hearing a young performer sing a local Chamorro song while strumming a ukulele. I remember looking through booths and feeling intricately crafted shell necklaces made by the person in front of me. Now, far from home, I realize how important those festivals were not just to the people, but to the Commonwealth Council on Arts and Culture. The emphasis put on these festivities were more than just mere means of entertainment but more of an effort to immerse the younger generation in the culture. Through such programs, we are able to reconnect our society and its culture one step at a time.
As I have mentioned before, “Yanggin malingu i lingguåhi, malingu i kuttura.” To lose a language means to lose a culture. It is of the utmost importance that we, Chamorros, understand our roots and connect through our language. By connecting and communicating with our language, we can recognize who we are and where we come from. We can figure out what it means to be Chamorro and why we should stand tall, proud of who we are. In doing so, we ensure our language and culture will not die. We will carry it on for future generations to come. We will teach others the importance of the gloto above the å, the soft pronunciations in our g’s, and why we pronounce our y’s as z’s. We will continue to speak with the voices of our ancestors and practice the traditions and beliefs handed down to us. We will not lose our language. We will not lose our culture, not now and not ever.
Si Yu’us Ma’ase.