Sunday, October 9, 2016

Breathe Life into the Chamorro Language

Breathe life in the Chamorro language
From 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 10 at the University of Guam CLASS Lecture Hall, students in the Chamorro Studies program will organize an “Inadaggao Lengguahen Chamoru” or a Chamorro Language Forum. For this event, four senatorial candidates from each political party will be asked questions in the Chamorro language about pertinent island issues, and respond in the Chamorro language. The event is open to the public and refreshments will be provided.

Nowadays it is easy to forget that there are two official languages for this island, Chamorro and English. One of them has been here for a little over a century, the other for thousands of years. Despite changes that have taken place, the Chamorro language has probably been a part of this land, as long as it has hosted people. It is intimately tied to the natural world and it is the tongue that Chamorros have used to describe everything from typhoons to foreign invaders. In recent memory, one language has become dominant, while the other is increasingly quiet.

Due to overt efforts by the U.S. Navy prior to World War II to prohibit and discourage the use of the Chamorro language and postwar choices made by Chamorros to Americanize, the Chamorro language has been steadily declining. After surviving innumerable trials and tribulations, we can almost hear the end of the language on the horizon. Although the 20,000-plus speakers of Chamorro in the world today is positive compared to many smaller languages with just a handful of fluent speakers. Each successive census indicates that rather than stemming the tide of language death, we continue to lose tens of thousands of speakers.

The Chamorro renaissance, which has reversed so many formerly negative self-perceptions that Chamorros have of themselves, has done little to slow the decline of the Chamorro language. Chamorros no longer eagerly accept the idea that the primary value of their language and culture is that it can be sacrificed on the altar of American assimilation, but sadly this has not led to an increase of the number of Chamorro language speakers.

There are many factors that are affecting the decline of the Chamorro language, but the usual reasons that you will hear discussed around your average fiesta table aren’t the real villains. The Chamorro language isn’t being killed by Facebook, iPads, Netflix or anything of the sort. The Chamorro language isn’t dying because of a terrible laziness that afflicts the youth of today or a saddening unwillingness to learn their native tongue. The Chamorro language is declining because those who can speak Chamorro do not speak it to those who don’t, especially if they are younger than them. And furthermore, that who can speak Chamorro tend not to use it around those who can’t.

Observe your average Chamorro speaker and you’ll see this is true. Chances are good they will use Chamorro among those in their age group, especially if they are above the age of 60. But when it comes to interacting with those younger than them, even within their own family, you’ll see the amount of Chamorro drop dramatically.

Languages remain alive for a single reason; it has nothing to do with status, practicality or speaker community size. They are alive because they are passed on to the next generation.

There are still spaces in Guam where the Chamorro language remains strong and audible. There are still families where it is being passed on to the younger generations. But these spaces and instances are becoming fewer and fewer. As a result, the language becomes quieter and quieter.

Despite the dire state of the Chamorro language today, it is important to recognize that the language does not have to die. It is not destined for linguistic oblivion, existing only in recordings in the Guam Museum. It can be brought back to a healthy state again, but doing so requires far more than current efforts within families and within communities. As UOG President Robert Underwood argued during his keynote address at the Indigenous Language Conference during the Festival of Pacific Arts, you cannot just “håfa adai” your way to language revitalization. Given the deep tissue forms of colonization that convinced Chamorros that their language was useless in the first place, serious interventions are required to re-infuse value and reestablish a sense of linguistic integrity and practical flexibility.

It is common to see the decline of the Chamorro language as tied to technological or cultural changes, but that isn’t how languages work. Languages are adaptive, they can survive just about anything, so long as people continue to use them and pass them on to the next generation. The Chamorro language is disappearing because rather than adapting the language to the world around us, we have reduced the places where it has spoken, ceding more and more territory of everyday life to the realm of English, leaving Chamorro to feel stagnant and static in comparison. In addition to simply using it with our children and grandchildren, we have to expand the things we use Chamorro for and the places where it is natural to use it. This can mean pushing the Chamorro language to evolve in order to be able to accommodate shifts in technology or popular culture, but also use community outreach or public mandates in order to increase the number of places where Chamorro can be used or heard.

Electoral politics was once a place, in the 20th century where the Chamorro language thrived. From pocket meetings to the speeches on the floor of the Guam Legislature, whereas English was the formal language of politics, Chamorro was a necessary companion, feeding a vitality into campaigns. Take, for example, this passage from Pedro C. Sanchez’s "Guahan/Guam: The History of Our Island":
The 1956 election was the first tie that a real contest for legislative seats was experienced on Guam … Popular Party meetings went into the wee hours of the morning. They stayed until they heard Senator James T. Sablan of Agana Heights deliver his nightly “bombshell” blasting the leaders of the Territorial Party slate. His attacks ranged from hilarious uses of the Chamorro and English languages to malicious attacks on his opponents. But the crowd loved it and would disperse only after he finished at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.
As the number of Chamorro speakers has declined, the number of fluent speakers among our elected leaders has dropped as well. Pocket meetings used to be filled with speakers who would politick in the Chamorro language, but even their numbers are dwindling. Political events will feature common Chamorro phrases, perhaps a single speaker who will emphasis the use of Chamorro, but other than that, politics are now English with local flavor.

The Inadaggao Lengguahen Chamoru is an attempt to push back against this Chamorro decline and stagnation. It is a symbolic intervention aimed at expanding the borders of what we’ve come to commonly associate with the Chamorro language. To help Chamorros of all ages see that the language is so much more than tattoos, T-shirts or food words. But that it will only have as much value, as much life as we breathe into it through our use of it.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Saving a People

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saving a People and Their Culture Through the Perpetuation of a Language …

Nasion Chamoru

The CHamoru culture is being revived and with great enthusiasm! 

I find it fascinating to see that the CHamoru language to many CHamorus abroad especially in the lower 48 states in the U.S. find their native language of Guåhan and the Marianas as a “secondary language.”  But with much praise to all those past and present who continue in teaching the language to those “willing to learn” their native language using all forms of medium available to spread the knowledge.

As I drive on the freeway or in city streets, I notice more and more car stickers with words or symbols only associated with the CHamorus of the Marianas.

Makes feel good to see that many of the vehicle owners are between Gen X (Generation X) or a Millennial.

Some of the common symbols used are the fish hooked used more commonly now as pendants on necklaces, or the silhouette of the Island of Guåhan. 
Others sport symbols such as the Latté and Tåsa or a silhouette of a masculine male with his hair at a half-notch.  The most popular symbol is that found in the center of the national flag of Guåhan with the
sakman out in the water just off shore.
The words used in some cases are; Håfa Adai; Håfa?; Fokai; Chamorro; or CHamoru.

Regardless of what symbol or words I find on these
vehicles, the answer as to what People claims the vehicle is clear, “They are CHamoru.”  It doesn’t bother me if they were born abroad, rather it makes one quite happy to know that the descendants whom have left the island for whatever reason have found some form of identity and are proud of it.  And for that we should all be proud.

Recently, I have seen more spirited efforts both on island and off by CHamorus in undertaking much effort in teaching both the native language and more recently the written form of the language.

Although the efforts must be commended, many traditional CHamorus whom grew up speaking the language feel that the written language would only divide the people into sects.  As many I have spoken to in the region have mentioned, “Tåya adai na mafa’någué ham taimanu ma’tuge’-påpa' i lenguåhita’.”  Others believe that this should actually help perpetuate the culture and its People by doing so in teaching a written version of the language.

Not personally taking sides on the issue, I must admit that descendants of the Ancient CHamoru and Native to the Marianas region should be proud that an effort is being undertaken and with such vigor and enthusiasm.

Speak it! Teach it! Practice it daily!  Even if by only comprising a simple sentence that you can use to teach your descendants, your forefathers and mothers will be proud to see that you’ve taken that time in passing a legacy that has existed for thousands of years and that their legacy will continue to live even in a highly technological environment!
Si Yu’os Ma’åsi Afanelos…

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Keeping Chamorro Alive

Keeping Chamorro language alive
by Haidee V. Eugenio
Pacific Daily News
August 20, 2016

Chamorro speakers on Guam are dwindling.

“I speak Chamorro and I want my children and husband, all born here, to also know how to speak the language. We’re hoping to close the gap,” Kayla Lujan-Espinosa, 27, said as she cradles her 3-week-old child and looks after her 4-year-old son at a community presentation on a draft master plan for a Chamorro immersion school program.

She and her husband Rufo, 30, have three young children they want to understand and speak Chamorro. The Lujan-Espinosa family is one of many whose members are born and raised in Guam, yet many of them don't understand, much less speak, Chamorro.

“From 1990 to present, we probably lost about 10,000 Chamorro speakers,” said Jimmy S. Teria, school program consultant with the Guam Department of Education’s Chamorro Studies and Special Projects Division.

“When I heard about a proposal to have a Chamorro immersion school program, I thought this will help my family learn the language,” said Kayla Lujan-Espinosa, who's originally from Saipan, a teacher at Talofofo Elementary School.

Despite their busy schedule, the family took the time to attend a presentation Wednesday at the Yona/Talofofo Senior Citizens Center in Talofofo on a draft Chamorro Immersion Master Plan developed by the Guam Department of Education’s Chamorro Studies and Special Projects Division. The draft plan is available for public review, input and participation.

No new generation

Most Chamorro speakers, Teria said, are over age 55, so they are considered a part of the older population.

“We haven’t created a new generation of speakers,” said Teria, one of the leading proponents of a community-driven Chamorro language immersion school program. He said the program would complement existing Chamorro language programs on the island.

Teria said the data is based from the U.S. Census of 1990, 2000 and 2010, which show the number of Chamorro speakers declining from 34,598 to 25,827. He said between 2010 and 2016, thousands more have been lost, bringing the estimate to 10,000.

“According to statistics, if you don’t have a younger generation speaking the language, your language is endangered. It’s very endangered at this point," he said.

Teria also cited the results of a survey done by Pa’a Taotao Tano in 2010.

“There is an indication from the data that the under-18 group struggles the most with the Chamorro language in overall comprehension,” Teria said. 

Dying, but not dead

Rosa Salas Palomo, another proponent of a language immersion program and chairwoman of the Guam Academy Charter School Council, said the time is now to slow down or reverse the decline in the number of Chamorro speakers.

She said community involvement is a key factor in making this happen.

“The Chamorro language is dying, but it’s not dead in Guam,” Palomo said. “We want it alive. It is still viable. We want it used in every aspect of the community.”

The draft plan, according to Teria, resulted from a community survey completed in March 2016 to gauge interest in a Chamorro language immersion program. There were 164 unique respondents and 88 of those agreed or strongly agreed that they would enroll their children at a school where only Chamorro is used for teaching, learning and socializing.

Teria is encouraging families, individuals and groups interested in reviewing or providing input to the draft plan, or learn more about the proposed program, to contact him at 300-5048 or 483-3713.

Monday, August 15, 2016

New Chamorro Immersion Program

Chamorro immersion program ensures Guam's language isn't lost
by Isa Baza

With fewer and fewer children speaking the Chamorro language every year, the Guam Department of Education is stepping up to create a Chamorro immersion program that may help keep our island's native tongue fresh in the minds of Guam youth.

"Right now based on a lot of the surveys we've done throughout the years, we don't have any speakers, we don't produce speakers, so our intention with this master plan is to produce speakers for our next generation, so when they're done with their schooling, they're able to survive using the Chamorro language," explained Division of Chamorro Studies acting administrator Rufina Mendiola. She said her department has developed a draft Chamorro immersion master plan, which aims to teach students exclusively in Chamorro.

"We need to have the science teacher speaking only in Chamorro, the math, the basic content that every child needs to learn in the classroom but it's going to be all immersed in the Chamorro language," she added.

The draft plan is a result of a survey of both parents and students conducted last school year. Mendiola said, "And based on the results, a lot of the questions had to do with - if we had an immersion master plan in place for the department of education, are you going to have your child attending - there are a lot of parents that are interested."

She said the program would address weaknesses with the current program, including a lack of sufficient instructional time.  "We're very limited right now, for example in elementary and teaching of the Chamorro mandate, we have twenty minutes a day for the K-2 and 30 minutes for 3-5, it's very limited," she added.

She hopes to produce a finalized plan later this year, and possibly begin a pilot program at the elementary level in School Year 2017-2018. However community support is essential. For those interested in learning more about this plan you can attend a community presentation scheduled for Wednesday at 6pm at the Talofofo Senior Center.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Language Survival Requires Speaking

Underwood: Chamorro language survival requires speaking
by Jerick Sablan
Pacific Daily News

University of Guam President Robert Underwood last week gave a powerful message to Chamorros on how to create a community of speakers.

Underwood was a keynote speaker for the Festival of Pacific Arts Indigenous Language Conference held at the university.

“You can’t Hafa Adai yourself to a Chamorro speaking community,” he said.

Knowing just a few words in Chamorro, Underwood said, isn’t going to create a community that speaks Chamorro, nor is “imagining” it will happen 50 years later — referencing the governor’s Imagine Guam initiative, a plan developed by community members that outlines where the island should be in half a century.

Chamorros must learn and speak the language now for the language to strive, Underwood said.
“It’s that simple,” he said.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, has included Chamorro on its list of languages in danger of extinction.

Underwood said it’s “absolutely” possible for Chamorros to pick up the language, even if they are older. It just takes effort to do it, he said.

“I wish I had happier news,” Underwood said. “I’m afraid we don’t.”

The university president said when he was growing up, he would hear Chamorro spoken on the streets, and everywhere it was common.

Today it isn’t so, Underwood said.

“It’s sad what’s happening,” he said.

Underwood has been an advocate for the Chamorro language for many years. He said he was surprised when he came back to Guam after living in the states for some years and discovered he knew the language better than some of his peers.

He was able to use Chamorro despite being out in the states because his mother would pretend to not speak English when salespeople came to their home. He said it was a game he and his mom played and it helped him learn a lot of Chamorro.

Much of the loss can be attributed to Chamorros thinking that English would help them succeed in life, he said.

It’s important to understand Chamorro language in the context of historical development, Underwood said.

For example, the Chamorro word for avocado, alageta, comes from the old American term alligator pears.

“It’s a wonderful story,” he said.

He said the conference was important, not so much to rediscover who islanders are, but to know that everyone has a certain set of historical experiences.

Paul Paton, from First Languages Australia, who also attended Friday’s conference, said his organization is helping keep indigenous languages alive in the country.

Australia is home to many endangered languages and the group’s hope is to help them revive and thrive, he said. They have more than 20 language centers and have great support from the government, he said.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Chamorro Language Mobile Apps

Mobile Apps Aim To Help People Learn Chamorro Language
Guam groups release ‘Speak Chamorro,’ ‘Learn Chamorro’ apps

By Jerick Sablan

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, March 19, 2015) – New technology is expanding the ways people can learn Chamorro.

Two groups recently created mobile apps to help people learn the Chamorro language. The Young Men's League of Guam released the "Speak Chamorro" app last week, and Troy Aguon, publisher of Learn Chamorro, a digital publication that helps people learn the language, said the "Learn Chamorro" app will be released soon.

'Speak Chamorro'

The "Speak Chamorro" app from the Young Men's League of Guam is available on Google Play and is expected to be available in Apple's App Store as soon as it gets approved, Young Men's League of Guam Public Affairs Officer Wil Castro said. The app is free to download.

The app features a Chamorro word of the day with the definition and the use of the Chamorro word in a sentence with the English translation.

The Guam Department of Education Chamorro Studies Division is a development partner for the app, Castro said.

Ron Laguana, administrator of the division and member of the league's board of directors, assists the league by providing the content used in the app, a release from the league states.

Castro said the app was prioritized to celebrate Mes Chamorro, or Chamorro month, and to celebrate the league's centennial anniversary coming in 2017.

So far the response to the app has been good, he added, and the league also has received ideas to improve it.
The group already is looking into improving the app by adding more features, such as pronunciation, conversation pieces and others, Castro said.

The technical developer for the app is local company Niche Creative, he said.

'Learn Chamorro'

For Aguon, the "Learn Chamorro" app started six years ago when he was looking for tools to help teach his kids how to speak Chamorro. There weren't many tools available then so he created the Learn Chamorro DVD and then went on to create other tools such as his website and, now, the app.
The app's demo was completed Dec. 24, he said.

The "Learn Chamorro" app is kid-focused with a game that uses images and words to help children learn Chamorro.

Aguon said the app is made for kids because they are the ones who will keep the Chamorro language alive.

The app also has audio, so a user can click on a word and hear its pronunciation, Aguon said.
It also shows a user's game score and has a share feature so users can post on social media.

Aguon said he plans to have an islandwide competition for kids using the app, in which they can win prizes. Weekly competitions with prizes also are planned.

The app's features include a dictionary, important phrases and a podcast on Guam history. The dictionary will include Chamorro-to-English and English-to-Chamorro translation.

The app also will have installments and updates that will increase the number of features available, Aguon said.

Learn Chamorro is working with local company Onlink to develop the app, he added.

"All the sponsors of this app have stepped up to promote, preserve and perpetuate the beautiful Chamorro language and culture," he said. "Not just during Mes Chamorro but all day, every day, all year long."

The "Learn Chamorro" app will be free to download, he said, because of support from generous sponsors.

Pacific Daily News
Copyright © 2015 Guam Pacific Daily News. All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 22, 2016

CNMI students win big in Chamorro language competition
Posted on Mar 12 2015
The Saipan Tribune
CNMI students were some of the top finishers in this week’s Chamorro language competition at the University of Guam from March 9 to 10.
For the middle school sinangan/oratorical category, Chacha Oceanview student Breanna Camacho placed first. In second was a student from Guam. In third was Hopwood Junior High School’s Terry Ann Terry.
The category’s theme was “I Fino- Chamoru.” It required students to write, memorize, and speak on this theme.
For the poetry category, students recited a Chamoru language poem provided by the “Inachaigen Fino’ Chamoru” organizing committee.
In first place was Chacha Oceanview student Genzol Gonzales; a Guam student placed second; Hopwood Junior High School student Joshalyn Flores placed third.
For the Tinaitai Koru/Choral Reading, the Tinian Elementary school team placed third.
For the Lalai/Chant category, Hopwood and Chacha Oceanview, placed second and third, respectively.
For the profisiente (proficiency) category, students competed in reading comprehension, impromptu reading, and oral impromptu task completion rounds. Under this competition, Marianas High School students Balbina Concepcion and Kenaleen Litulomar placed second and third, respectively.
For the reading comprehension round, students read a selection and wrote answers to questions. For impromptu, they read aloud a brief passage or poem given to them 15 minutes before.
For the final impromptu round, a student is given a practical task using Chamoru language and behavior.
For the high school poetry recitation category, Marianas High School student Winfa Rabago placed second.
For the Kakanta na Palao’an/Female singer category, MHS student Riannalyn Manabat placed second.
For the male singing category, MHS student Jose Carreon placed first.
For the singing category, students had to wear their own Chamorro costume. Songs could be original or from another artist, but had to be in Chamorro, not bilingual and not translated from an English song.
For the inentepeten kotturan egge’/dramatic cultural interpretation, MHS placed first. Under this category, students acted out an original skit based on this year’s theme of “The Story of Latte.”
For the kanta yan baila/song with dance category, MHS placed first. Under this category, a group of students sang and danced to a song in the Chamorro language.
For the kantan chamorita/chamorita style of singing category, MHS placed first, beating John F. Kennedy High School from Guam. Under this category, a couple or group of students sang a back and forth between each other. It was a style of singing where a statement is made to be challenged, agreed upon, or rebuttal motivating a response.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Gåyu, Gåyu...Chamorro Political Wisdom

Gåyu, Gåyu…
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Guam Daily Post

While watching a speech by Republic US Presidential candidate this week I found myself yelling at my computer screen in Chamorro, “an meggai sinangan-mu, meggai dinagi-mu lokkue’!” This Chamorro saying is tied to a belief that those who tend to tell the truth, tend to say less. While those who talk a lot, lie a lot and are trying to sell you something. The truth usually takes less words to express than a lie.

While I have been following the US Presidential election closely for months, it dawned on me in that moment that 2016 is also an election year in Guam, at least for mayors, senators and non-voting delegates.

In the spirit of my yelling a Chamorro saying at Donald Trump, I sat down to think about what other Chamorro sayings that I’ve collected in my research might have some relevance to selecting leaders on Guam. In this column I’ve put together seven sayings in Chamorro that you might want to consider when casting a vote this year. As a disclaimer, these are my interpretations of the sayings and openly acknowledge that there other ways of analyzing them.

1. Tåya’ apasi-ña i Yine’ase

Translation: “There is no reward for being merciful.” Every political candidate will say they are running for office “para i taotao” or for the people. But how much can people trust this assertion? This saying is a reminder that those who truly seek to help people, should not want to be rewarded for their efforts. Should we judge potential leaders not only based on what they can accomplish, but also their intentions and the direct or indirect benefits their receive through their actions? What doe this say then about leaders who use their power to give money, jobs or contracts to their supporter or their family members?

2. Tåya’ pinekkat sin fegi

Translation: “There are no steps without footprints” This saying can mean many things, but it reminds us that there is no path that does not leave a trail, and that no one is without sin, or perfect. It is understandable that we expect much from our leaders, but what should our standards be, short of perfection? What kind of mistakes are acceptable? What kind aren’t? Should we forgive them? Or is one serious mistake, one too many?

3. I taotao ni’ tumungo’ sumalamångka, ha suhahåyi i barångka

Translation: “A man who knows how to roll, will avoid the bumps” The previous two sayings dealt with idealized conceptions of what a leader should be, but what if we were to be more practical. As this saying suggests, should a good leader be someone who isn’t just virtuous on the inside, but someone who is effective in the political context? Should a leader be someone, who in their actions and with less emphasis on their motivations, is able to work the system to accomplish things? Does this imply that there is no timeless quality to a leader, but it is instead dependent upon the variables of a historical moment?

4. I che’cho’ palao’an, tåya’ nai munhåyan

Translation: “A woman’s work is never finished” Given the Western ways that we have become accustomed to think in, it is easy to think of leaders as being masculine or primarily men. In Guam however, women traditionally held leadership roles, although this has changed significantly with the arrival of the Spanish and Catholicism. That historical power has manifested in the political realm in Guam, despite the way it has been weakened by various forms of patriarchy. Compared to most societies in the world, Guam has notably high female representation in elected positions. Should this reality, or the additional struggle that women face when seeking a leadership role in society affect how people vote?

5. Cha’-mu fañaluluda ni’ ti tihong-mu

Translation: “Don’t salute with a hat that isn’t yours.”  In the world of politics, praise and blame are everywhere, and the game seems to be, winners are able to hoard all the praise and the losers end up shoulder all the blame. In order to build their reputations leaders have a tendency to exaggerate their actions and sometimes outright steal credit for things that they aren’t really responsible for. In this saying, we see that it is not only wrong for someone to take credit for something they don’t deserve, but perhaps you should avoid giving credit to those that don’t deserve it. This can be difficult in practice however as people tend not to have good memories and also forget to ask good critical questions.

6. Yanggen guaha prublemå-mu tachu ya un fana’. Mungga manangga esta ki
pinalo’po’ hao.

Translation: “If you have a problem, stand and face it. Do not wait until it has overwhelmed you.” Decisiveness or the ability to act quickly and swiftly when it is deemed necessary, can be a defining quality of a leader. Action can always be put off until later, change can always be delayed, but at what cost? A good leader may be the one who can see that something must be done now, and work to help others see that need.

7. Yanggen taotao sin orna, esta sin tåya’ bali-ña

Translation: “If a man is without honor, he is not worthy of anything.” Is a sense of honor, or principle the core quality of a leader? Does this mean that he or she will act in ways that might even defy or challenge those around them? On the surface this quote seems very simple, but in practice it is difficult to perceive. Confucius argued that a good leader is like the northern star, a unchanging virtuous light that through its constancy compels others to follow it. The problem with this is that most people who look at the night sky don’t know which is the north star, and in the way might not recognize someone who is leading based on principle rather than pandering or hiding their agenda.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Language Life/Language Death

Life or death for languages

December 23, 2015 - 06:47

Can languages be resurrected from the (almost) dead? Or is it fine for them to follow in the footsteps of some other languages and die a “natural” death?

All languages evolve and change. Some merge, and some split into distinct dialects or even separate languages. And in this evolutionary process, some languages die out.
How do languages die?
“A language has to be spoken by young people, preferably across several parts of their lives, to remain a living language,” says Øystein A. Vangsnes. “Children have to learn it as they grow up and use it in their daily lives,” he says.
When this no longer happens, individuals lose their mother tongue competency. Fewer and fewer people use the language, until no one is speaking it in their everyday lives. Then it eventually dies out.
Vangsnes is a language professor at the University of Tromsø, Norway's Arctic university. He has researched the Pite Sami language, which lost its last native speaker in Norway sometime in the 1960s. Only around 30 people still speak this Sami language in Sweden.
To revive or not to revive?
Can we prevent small languages from disappearing before it gets to that point? Or should we come to terms with the fact that languages will die, as they have done throughout history?
Vangsnes says that depends on how the language is lost. It’s one thing when languages change over time, and another when a minority group is deprived of their language.
Several factors must be present to keep a language alive, he says.
For one, society at large needs to help by saying that the language is important, and encourage its use in natural contexts. “Learning a language in school or as an adult isn’t the same,” says Vangsnes.
Languages can be lost when parents don’t pass them on to their children or don’t recognize the importance of their own language.
“Language is a very important expression of culture. If you lose it, you lose part of your culture and identity,” Vangsnes says.
Use language at many levels
The more places people use a language, the stronger a role it plays. Children will only continue using the language if they have enough opportunities to speak it. A home language that only the family speaks is more endangered than a language that is used in the community, and a regional language has even more influence.
“And if the government intervenes and designates it as an official administrative language, that can give it status and make more people want to use the language,” says Vangsnes.
He gives Wales as an example. Welsh had low status and was little used, but now people have regained their pride in the language.

Visibility is important, and signs have high visibility. Signs in the Sami language have for years caused debate in Norway’s Nord-Norge province. They have great symbolic importance, says Vangsnes.
Write it down
The written word is vital for communication in our day and age. Books can help children learn the language. A written language helps keep it alive and signals its status.
Lack of a written language has been one of the problems facing the Pite Sami language. Only recently has a group that speaks this little language collected words and written them down. Researchers have made an electronic dictionary available.
But it may be too late for the highly endangered language. Last century’s government Norwegianization tactics, forcing the Sami to speak Norwegian, hit the sparsely spoken languages the hardest. Swedish Sami peoples were similarly affected.
The forced relocation of Sami in the early 1900s was another death knell for the language, because the more widely spoken Northern Sami exerted pressure on small languages like Pite Sami. The authorities also closed the borders so herders could no longer wander freely with their reindeer between Norway and Sweden, says Vangsnes.
Rising from the dead
It is inevitable that languages die out, according to Vangsnes. The biggest languages dominate.
“Languages don’t have static sizes. Some die, others live on in new forms,” he says.
But sometimes it’s possible to revive a language that has been absent from everyday speech. Hebrew is an example.
It had no more native speakers and existed only as Judaism’s sacred language. When the state of Israel was established, Hebrew became an official language there and now it has millions of “first language” speakers.
Number of languages growing
“We study extinct languages to find out what words people used in the old days and how language evolved. For example, nobody talks Gothic anymore but we use our knowledge about it to understand how modern Germanic languages have evolved,” Vangsnes says.
So even if Pite Sami dies out, as pessimists predict, the language glossary that has been created will live on as a cultural monument and will be useful in research, he says.
UNESCO has recorded the disappearance of at least 230 languages since the 1950s. And yet the number of languages is actually growing in scientists' databases, with over 7,000 registered in the world as researchers become aware of more languages. Researchers also use new knowledge to define as separate languages what previously were considered dialects.