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Friday, March 25, 2011

Community in Wonderland: Preserving language

I read a letter to the editor today from one of our local papers.  Allan was sitting next to me singing and playing the guitar.  He stopped when he noticed a change in my facial expression.  I was very upset and he could tell.  He asked what was wrong and I explained to him that someone's lettter to the editor pissed me off.  His response was, "Hayi?!"  Hayi means who.  The fact that he responded in Chamorro instead of English meant so much at that moment.

This is the letter to the editor:

I read with great interest the article in the 21 March 2011 Marianas Variety Guam entitled “Chamorro Language Bills to Cost Millions”.
I’m not a linguist, but over the years I have noticed some things about language around the world that GovGuam may want to consider before spending too much money on preserving a dead language.
I went to Paris, France with a French Canadian friend from Berlin NH. His grandparents’ only spoke French Canadian, his parents’ spoke both English and French Canadian and he wrote, read and spoke French Canadian as a second language.
What was interesting was that the Parisians actually understood my Boston English better than his spoken French. He read the language and understood the meaning, but the spoken words were not understandable.
The Egyptians don’t speak the same Arabic as the people of Syria or Saudi Arabia. London English, Boston English and Dallas English look the same in writing, but don’t sound the same.
The party game where you whisper 4 or 5 words to your neighbor and see what message comes back is, I suspect, how close ancient Chamorro and today’s Chamorro are to each other.
The Catholic Church tried to save the written language of Latin without much success. Latin had thousands of written documents and thousands of years of history to fall back on and it’s still a dead language.
Chamorros had no written language until the Spanish arrived. The last full blooded Chamorro male on Guam died before 1830. The Spanish outlawed the speaking of the Chamorro language for almost 100 years.
This is only hearsay, but I was told that the present Chamorro language started in World War II when the Japanese outlawed the speaking of English.
The people on Guam started speaking in a code that was not “English”. This code is present day Chamorro. If this were true “HAVE A NICE DAY” might sound something like “hafa adai” in the non-English whisper code.
If you could defrost a 400-year-old ancient Chamorro somewhere, I doubt he would understand a single word in today’s Chamorro language.
Do today’s children need an appreciation of Chamorro culture and language? Maybe! Do today’s children need to know how to live in caves without electricity, water or sewer?
Do the children of Guam need to learn how to hollow out a log to make a boat, how to make buggy whips or how to repair a gasoline engine?
If the school is going to teach a dead language, I’d vote for a dead computer language. In today’s world is there any value in learning a language that can only be used in your home?

Charles Adams

You can probably see why this upset me and why Allan responding in Chamorro made me feel better.  In our home the Chamorro language is not thriving, but it is not dead either!  The comments that followed the article also made me feel better.  Here are 2 of my favorites:

I am a mainlander. When I was a child, my father lived on Guam for a year, not military, just a guy getting off the mainland. He lived near Inarajan in a little bungalow on the beach with a mainland family and worked on a tuna fishing boat where he was subjected to the standard abuse doled out to a newbie and a mainlander. He was befriended by many of the local families there, and when he flew back he even brought me my first tuna sashimi, packed on ice during his flight. Imagine an 8 year old boy eating sashimi from Guam in the middle of the mountains in Washington state!
About six years ago, I had a chance to visit Guam. I had met many Chammoros here in California, and was able to travel there with some of those friends and experience the real culture of Guam. Amazing family meals, bbq's on the beach, I even got to hear a Taotaomona let out a yip and saw the pinch mark on my friend's arm. I searched out the place my dad used to live, and was able to pick it out by the little islands off the south coast, but most of the tidal pools and property had been changed or washed away by typhoons. So much seemed to have changed in that time, a period of about 25 years. But one thing from those photos I used to look at remained the same. The images of large extended families welcoming him to immense buffets of meats and red rice and kelaguin were a mirror image of what I experienced first hand two decades later. Even with all the social and political changes, even with typhoons tearing the landscape apart and changing the physical aspects of the island, the culture remains strong.
The point of this rambling story is that even a mainlander who only visited Guam for 9 days could feel the culture and experience a way of life that is deeply rooted in tradition. It was quite obvious to me that these families, my Chamorro brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, take extreme pride in their culture, their history, and their language. The heritage on Guam is strong, and any true Human Being with a heart to listen with can hear the reverberations of the ancient Chamorros on this island. Mr. Adams is obviously coming at this issue in a purely financial sense, and the other commenters were spot on when they attribute this to the blanching of culture in the west. It is shameful that I must be grouped in with this type of culturally empty and probably upwardly mobile capitalist.
Thank you, Guam, for the experience of a lifetime. I hope to return and enjoy the same warm island welcome and AMAZING food! (Hawai'i, eat your heart out.)   -Billy Carter
That one made me cry.  Saina ma'ase, Mr. Carter!

This next one is from local businessman, Kaz Endo.

 A Letter to Charles Adam.

I point to your last sentence in your letter as the primary reason for the need to teach the Chamorro language in both public and private schools. You wrote: "In today’s world is there any value in learning a language that can only be used in your home?"
The answer clearly is yes, there is value, if not a pressing need to preserve such a local language.
For my answer to make sense to you, you need to assume this island; GUAM is home, and not just the concrete dwelling in which we all sleep in... keep reading.
Language connects people, both near and far. Whether it is spoken in English, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, or Chamorro - the words understood 'natively' can really never be replaced with a translation. There are emotions and deeper meanings that simply get lost in translation. This is why art forms such as poetry, books and plays rarely are as powerful translated as they would be in its native form.
Language from any culture originates from the need to communicate with one's community. As long as such communities exist, that language should be preserved for the sake of the community. Language is culture and culture is language. It's that simple. If the 'Chamoru' loses their language, in a sense it loses its community. 
The Chamorro language isn't 'dead' it is rather, quite alive and being used here in Guam and around the world. Just because something isn't used in mass, does not equate it as dead or obsolete. If you have a hard time understanding my point, just think of the Chamorro language as fine wine, rather than grape juice. Although only a few can enjoy it, it is still something to be enjoyed.
But let's not be simpletons here. A more accurate analogy would be this: With the advancement of photo enhancing software that allow photos to mimic paintings or illustrations, should we assume then that paintings, illustrations and natural medium art are also obsolete and dead? 
Of course not.
Capturing images on a camera is not the same as creating them on a canvas. This rings true for language however large or small its popular use. Communicating in English is not the same as doing so in Chamorro, or for that matter in Italian, Japanese or in French!
Speaking of which ... your story of your friend (who speaks and writes secondary French) who visited Paris and found himself having more success speaking English than broken French is a prime example of my point above. 
The French would rather speak to you in broken English (by the way, many Parisians actually speak English very well), than to have their beloved language butchered by an ex-pat tourist. To the French, speaking lousy French, is like dipping 'foie gras' into ketchup — they rather have you eat fries than for you to do that to their favorite dish. 
Your failure to grasp the need of including language education for children at their developmental age, is rather understandable given that you probably were not raised with such balance in mind by those who educated you.
Learning a language should not be just for future economical advantage (i.e., learning Chinese, Spanish or Japanese). The mandate for learning a language in school should always start 'local' and move towards global requirements. The more languages we all speak, the better we all would be!
Children who live in Guam, regardless of race and ethnicity, should be required to learn, even if it be at a rudimentary level — the native language of where they live. This allows them to understand Guam's culture well-beyond what's written in history books. The ability to converse with Chamorro elders (relative or not), the ability to have a sense of unity (remember language connects people), with native residents shows respect to the host ... and in return, the host will show respect to its 'guests'.
No other country has a problem understanding my point above, then perhaps the United States of America. Why? Simple, really... Because America is a true melting pot of different cultures. Ironically, for this reason, the modern American, although patriotic, still needs to harness their roots from their family's own origins, while being American. 
This is why many people in the United States feel the need to label themselves as African-American, Chinese-American, Irish-American, French-American, Japanese-American and so on ... rather than just being 'AMERICAN.' The only American that really needs no prefix is of course the original Americans - the native indians (AMERICAN-Indians).
Chuck, I'm almost done ... keep reading ...
With regard to the recommendation that children learn a 'dead' computer language over the so-called dead Chamorro language, I fully understood your intended sarcasm, but even sarcasm needs to make sense to show the implied wit behind it!
Although computer languages are also a manmade, it is not a language that people speak to one another. We are not machines. An obsolete computer language (i.e., Basic), does nothing for a child, whereas perhaps learning Latin (your so called other dead language) can allow a child to read the works of early books and philosophies in its native and true form. I mean, wouldn't we all want to read the book of Nostradamus in his own words (Latin)? I would. Instead, I am forced to accept the English, translated version. What does an antiquated computer language such as DOS or Fortran get me? Nothing ... except, perhaps keep me unemployed as computer programmer.
Learning his or her native language or in the case of all Guam students, learning the native tongue of where they live, regardless of their own ethnic background (or future need) is truly beneficial for their overall development. We should encourage balanced spending to promote language and other academics, not use the lack of budget, as the reason to take them away.
Chuck, in the future, use analogies to make a compelling point — not red herrings. Children don't need to learn how to live in caves, but they certainly can learn to say "thank you" or "you're welcome" in Chamorro.
In closing ...
It would have been far simpler to call you an idiot at the very beginning of my letter, but clearly you are not, an idiot. After all, you articulated and pragmatically explained your position. So it was only fair for me to do the same to counter your mis-guided opinion with response just as pragmatic and hopefully, articulate.
So, there you go — You are NOT an idiot, rather — just ignorant. 
You can fix ignorance. We all can. Good luck doing it.

:D  That one made me smile!  Saina ma'ase, Kaz.

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