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  • By Johanna Salinas and Alex J. Rhowuniong

Revitalizing CHamoru: Opportunities and challenges in preserving the native tongue

Nihi Guam

“Indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, each one taking with it a cultural and intellectual heritage,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote in an Aug. 9 tweet, underscoring the urgency “to protect languages under threat of extinction.”

Seeking to raise global attention to the peril besetting indigenous languages around the world, the UN General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of the Indigenous Language.

Experts predict that half of the roughly 7,000 languages in existence today will lose all fluent speakers by the end of this century. And CHamoru is one of the world’s endangered languages.

Cara Flores

For CHamoru millennials who are beginning to rediscover their culture, coming to terms with the diminishing language can be disempowering. Cara Flores did not let the fragile state of CHamoru discourage her from learning and uplifting the language. Flores is the founder of Nihi, a local nonprofit that seeks to promote CHamoru language and culture with lessons and online videos. “Our classes offer support and space to work past this challenge,” said Flores, who herself is a student of Nihi’s courses.

Nihi is among the local community’s efforts to revitalize CHamoru in line with the UN’s declaration. Another local project, undertaken by the University of Guam’s Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, involves language documentation. UOG recently received a $275,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the project aimed at preserving “language integrity.”

“One of the challenges that adults face when learning the language is getting past the embarrassment of mispronouncing words. It's going to happen,” Flores said. “You just have to embrace this and work through it. You have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run.”

Cara Flores (Photo courtesy of Facebook)


Experts predict that half of the roughly 7,000 languages in existence today will lose all fluent speakers by the end of this century. And CHamoru is one of the world’s endangered languages.


Flores embraces whatever difficulties she encounters because, at the end of the day, she is learning CHamoru for herself. “One of the biggest challenges is the time commitment that adults need to make in order to learn a language,” she admitted. “You'll only make it so far in language class without committing to a minimum of 30 minutes every day of engaged practice in addition to class. This tends to be a challenge for many adult learners.”

Amid the efforts, however, Flores even has to face criticisms — or “teasing”— from family and friends. “We all have that one uncle that is going to make fun of us for trying,” she said. “Our instructor Dr. Ken Gofigan Kuper tells us that we need to put on our kasse armor because that's also part of the process.”

The CHamoru language is included in the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian family. Linguists and cultural scholars noted that CHamoru has long been endangered, at a trickling pace since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s; but most notably/ with a strong push in 1917 when the U.S. Naval government banned Chamoru speaking and designated English as the only official language of Guam. The Western influence has further pushed the native language to the periphery.

Today, Wikipedia recorded about 58,000 CHamoru speakers (not necessarily first language speakers) who still speak the language on some level. Of this number, only 25,800 are on Guam. The rest are from the Northern Marianas Islands and those now living stateside from both NMI and Guam.

Dr Robert Underwood

Dr. Robert Underwood, former UOG president, said the native tongue is endangered because it’s “no longer being transmitted intergenerationally” in Guam homes. There may still be around 3,000 CHamoru speakers who learned the language as first-language at home as children, he said. But almost all young adult CHamoru speakers today either learned it from school or on their own personal efforts.

Underwood, who also served 10 years as Guam’s delegate to the U.S. Congress, is co-principal investigator for NSF’s Documenting Endangered Languages grant, which is funding a project titled, “Developing CHamoru Language Infrastructure: Goggue Yan Chachalani Mo’na I Fino’-ta (Embrace and Make a Way Forward for Our Language).”

“I want to stress that this grant is going to— I believe — make dramatic impact on the quality of CHamoru language use over time,” Underwood said at a Sept. 12 press conference announcing the project. “But this is not a language teaching grant. People don’t come to the grant and say, ‘Okay, teach me CHamoru!’ Not that kind of grant.”

The project’s three primary tasks include recording, documenting and creating a repository at the Micronesia Area Research Center at UOG, as a reference for researchers and others who wish to learn CHamoru.

Underwood said he’s been working for years to preserve the CHamoru language. After the grant was awarded, he then needed credentialed experts to carry out the actual tasks of recording and documentation. “Even though I’ve been at work on these issues for decades, I have no linguistic credentials,” Underwood said, “and I have no documentation credentials.”

Underwood has thus teamed up with language experts: Dr. David A. Ruskin, assistant professor of linguistics at UOG and co-principal investigator on the grant; and Dr. Andrea Berez-Kroeker, grant consultant and language documentation expert from the University of Hawaii Kapiolani Language Archive. Francine Naputi of the Kumision i Fino’ CHamoru is the project coordinator and national partner for UOG on the project.

The project, said Underwood, is targeting CHamoru first-language speakers on Guam only. Naputi said the manamko’ are being sought out to participate in the project through their Guam village mayors. UOG students and CHamoru language educators on island will also be involved in the project, helping with documentation and recording.

Currently, said Underwood, Berez-Kroeker is teaching a class to about 10 individuals at the university on language recording and documenting.

The Nihi project, meanwhile, takes advantage of the digital platform to reach out to the millennials. As Nihi finds success with the language lessons, the nonprofit is getting a lot of attention with its YouTube channel. “Whether we like it or not, social media is a major influence especially on our kids. CHamoru culture is absent in this realm. I once dreamt of a day where kids and their families who are accessing YouTube can watch quality programming where identity is affirmed,” Flores said.

The group began with posting children videos to gain young viewers, but recently Nihi has been branching out to viewers of all ages with Kids Talk. The format of Nihi’s newest YouTube Kids Talk series was designed for online platforms. “This series has allowed us to begin growing our YouTube audience and more importantly, it has helped to expand Nihi by providing an opportunity for broader community participation,” Flores said.

The online project has engaged more than 80 kids within the community, highlighting intergenerational conversations and the knowledge of CHamoru elders. “This has been a beautiful opportunity and we feel so honored,” Flores said. “Additionally, we've hosted several regional elders and in this, we've been able to begin to grow regional relationships with our cousin island communities. This is so important to us.”

Flores continues to dream big for Nihi in the media. “I think our next dream is animating the story subscription, Aniti, that we're producing. That's a long way off,” she said. “These are media dreams but what we'd really love to see is intergenerational conversations happening in Chamoru — loving elders spending time with children, speaking Chamoru and passing on our stories and values. Media will never be a substitute for that.”

Along with the viewers, Kids Talk helps informs the young participants on their history and issues affecting their culture. “There are several kids who started the series with very little knowledge or interest in our land and our identity and through participating in the series they’ve learned so much about our culture and threats to our natural heritage like invasive species and the military buildup,” Flores said. “Through that knowledge and reconnection, they've become really passionate about taking care of and protecting Guam while also gaining confidence in who they are and where they come from. That means everything to us. It's why we do what we do.”

Although Flores has strong passion and energy running Nihi, she needs as much support as she can get. “Media production is expensive. We need community support to survive,” said Flores. “You can help us by making a one-time donation, becoming a monthly donor or by subscribing to our Aniti series, a series that offers language and culture education through a comic style story released twice per month. This series is great for kids but adults can really benefit from it too.”


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