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.
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.