A dying language
Chamorro is an endangered language but PIBBA will not let it go extinct quietly
On Guam, it is typical of young Chamorros, even those in their 40s, not to speak their native language. Since the “No Chamorro” policy of 1917, the Chamorro language has become “inferior” to the promises of speaking English. Because children would be punished for speaking Chamorro at school, Guam parents felt ashamed and dissuaded to share their language with the youth. Back then and even today, speaking English well implies having a good career and a good life.
The “No Chamorro” policy did not make its way to the Northern Marianas in 1917, which was then a Japanese colony. The Chamorro language was able to coexist with Japanese and even after WWII when America gained control over NMI, there were no drastic laws against speaking the native language.
According to Ethnologue.com, as of 2015 about 64,300 people speak Chamorro. Today, America has heavily influenced the Marianas’ education and lifestyle. While the mindset that “Chamorro is less” than English has taken over both colonies, this year's Pacific Island Bilingual Bicultural Association’s conference, which took place June 25-29 at Hopwood Jr. High School, strived to revitalize the native tongue.
“It’s great that PIBBA is in Saipan this year, for others to appreciate our culture — that’s what PIBBA’s about, appreciating all our languages and cultures in Micronesia and across the Pacific," said CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres. “And so, having the rotation here gives us the opportunity to showcase our language and at the same time to view others of the Pacific.”
The driving force to this year's conference was PIBBA International President Frances Sablan. During last year's PIBBA in Pohnpei, Sablan felt motivated to bring the conference to her island. “PIBBA is important to Saipan, because our culture and our language are the roots and if our roots aren’t strong and healthy, then our culture will collapse," said Sablan. “Having a good foundation is relevant. If you sustain the culture and keep the roots alive, no matter what challenges come our way, we can weather it and move forward.”
Banned: In 1917, Naval Government Executive General Order No. 243 banned speaking Chamorro, and “designated English as only official language of Guam and ordered that “Chamorro must not be spoken except for official interpreting.”
Rose Taimanao-Jones, president of PIBBA Saipan, said the conference provides a venue to discuss ways to salvage a dying language and culture. “If we do not support organizations like PIBBA, our people and our existence will be extinct," she said.
The death sentence on Chamorro language was imposed in 1917 via the Naval Government Executive General Order No. 243, which banned speaking Chamorro, and “designated English as only official language of Guam and ordered that Chamorro must not be spoken except for official interpreting.” Prior to this policy, the Navy established formal schools in 1904 with basic English skills instruction and “sanitation” the top priorities. Still, by the early 1920s, Gov. Adelbert Althouse noted that “few school children could speak English with any degree of efficiency” and Chamorro remained the predominant language in Chamorro homes. His solution was to collect and burn Chamorro-English dictionaries and to institute a “no Chamorro” rule in the classroom and playground.
While the oppressive language policies during the naval administration were eventually lifted, repairing the damage has since been a challenge. The native tongue has become a stranger to subsequent generations that have absorbed the Western culture. This was compounded by the arrival of different ethnic groups to Guam. According to IndexMundi, Chamorro speakers comprise only 17.8 percent of Guam’s population of 167,358, ranking third. The main language spoken on Guam is English at 43 percent, followed by Filipino, 21.2 percent.
In the Northern Marianas, the 2010 census showed 11,819 Chamorro speakers, ranking next to Filipino, 16,000.
While Chamorros in the Northern Marianas believe that PIBBA achieved what it set out to do, Jimmy Teria, commissioner of Guam's Language Commission, pointed out what it lacked. “If you view PIBBA as a conference, then it may still have relevance. It’s the only annual regional gathering of Pacific educators and this is a good thing," said Teria, who also teaches Chamorro on Guam. "However, if you view PIBBA as the conduit for future educators, I do not think it’s adequate. We face some very trying times as peoples of the Pacific and I don’t believe bilingualism has space for us anymore. We need to rethink our school system and look for more successful indigenous schooling.”
From left, Jenny Megofna of PIBBA Saipan, Sen. Jovie Taimano, PIBBA Guam president Rosa Palomo, PIBBA Guam webmaster Dr. Matilda Rivera,PIBBA International President Frances Sablan, and newly elected PIBBA International President Janet Ebil Orrukem of Palau. Photo by Johanna Salinas
Burning of dictionaries: Formal schools were established in 1904 by the Navy with basic English skills instruction and sanitation the top priorities. Still, by the early 1920s, Gov. Adelbert Althouse noted that “few school children could speak English with any degree of efficiency” and Chamorro remained the predominant language in Chamorro homes. Althouse’s response to the problem was to collect and burn Chamorro-English dictionaries and to institute a “no Chamorro” rule in the classroom and playground. (Guampedia)
There have been efforts on Guam to revive the indigenous language. In 2013, the government enacted Public Law 31-45, increasing the teaching of the Chamorro language and culture in Guam schools, extending instruction to include grades 7–10. Other efforts include Chamorro immersion schools, such as the Huråo Guåhan Academy at the Chamorro Village, which focuses on the teaching of Chamorro language and self-identity. On TV, Nihi! Kids is a culture-based, educational program targeting the young audience.
Although Teria didn't feel this year's PIBBA made an impact on Pacific culture, Dr. Matilda Rivera of PIBBA Guam believed that the conferenc Teria even questions the concept that Saipan is more prevalent in speaking Chamorro compared to Guam. “I didn’t see or hear anymore CHamoru language in Saipan than here on Guåhan,” said Teria. Despite this, Teria admires how young Saipanese still speak Chamorro and believes that these young Chamorros can be a force in preserving the language. “I do feel Saipan can learn from how Guåhan had stopped speaking CHamoru to younger generations 40 years ago.”e followed through with PIBBA's mission of promoting bilingual and bicultural activities. “It is my hope that it will continue its mission, so that our cultures and languages will survive the test of time. It further reminds us to share the knowledge and richness from the pillars of our people and the cultural wisdom that abound us as familia — The Pacific Way, the PIBBA Way," said Rivera. She saw the gathering as a blessing for both Marianas to unite and celebrate their shared culture. “The past colonizations of Guam had adversely impacted the use of the Chamorro language. To perpetuate our Chamorro language, we must immerse ourselves in speaking it. The more opportunities we have in speaking our indigenous language, the better chance we have in preserving it.”
Because of the hardships and changes the Chamorros have faced, the conference emphasized the urgency of protecting the culture. “One way Guam can learn from Saipan’s practices of Chamorro culture is to use the language at home. Don’t speak English, speak Chamorro,” Governor Torres said. “I know, it’s easier said than done. But my children speak Chamorro, because all we speak at home is our language. I give them love and respect in Chamorro. Children can speak English at school and with their friends, but they must learn Chamorro at home. Chamorro must start at home. Chamorro education is a plus, but it shouldn’t be the only tool for us to know our language.”
Since many parents on Guam do not speak Chamorro, it is vital for the education system to promote the language, Sablan said. “As educators, we must inspire the youth to continue using our language, and create our crafts, and practice our customs and beliefs. If we don’t, then the youth will become disconnected from our culture and won’t see any relevance for it and dismiss it. If the youth don’t see any purpose for continuing our practices, they’ll be disillusioned that English is the best way.”