‘It restores my soul’: pandemic offers unexpected boon to Guam indigenous language learners

Antoinette Charfauros McDaniel, a 58-year-old retired professor in Ohio, is trying to study her mother tongue. CHamoru, Guam’s indigenous language, is dying, with just 20,000 of the 168,000-strong population of the island able to speak it.

But the pandemic has offered an unexpected opportunity to revive it.

Since March, when the coronavirus crisis halted in-person activities, McDaniel has suddenly been able to access CHamoru classes and practice sessions held on Guam via her computer.

“I’m still grieving my parents, and every time I hear the language and learn a new word or phrase that [explains] what my mom was saying to my dad, it restores my soul,” said McDaniel, whose family comes from the Tamuning and Barrigada villages and who had never previously studied the language.

Michael Bevacqua, curator of Guam Museum and McDaniel’s online teacher, says prior to the pandemic people were keen to learn but lacked the resources. He began teaching the language in coffee shops in 2010. But when classes moved online, more people were able to join and at one point he had 250 people in his class.

“At one point, I sort of broke my Zoom account because it had a max of 100 mense, and there were way more than 100 people that were trying to join,” Bevacqua said. “My students donated money so I could upgrade the Zoom.”

Though the CHamoru people represent the largest portion of Guam’s population, the majority of native speakers are elderly, while Bevacqua says just three out of 4,000 colleges in the US offer CHamoru classes: the University of Guam, Guam Community College and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Kutturan Chamoru Foundation, an organisation on the west coast of the US, has offered in-person CHamoru lessons since 2010.

“In person, we were lucky if we got 10 of 15 students,” said Heidi Chargualaf-Quenga, executive director of the foundation.

When they started offering virtual lessons in 2021 due to the pandemic, interest boomed.

“We had to take down our flyer on our digital platforms two weeks prior to class because we had an overwhelming response of 100-plus students,” said Chargualaf-Quenga.

The decline in people speaking CHamoru dates back to the US naval administration. After Guam became an American colony in the Spanish American War of 1898, the navy banned CHamoru, also known as Chamorro, and burned CHamoru-English dictionaries.

Deur 1940, 75% of Guam’s population over the age of 10 spoke English, according to Guampedia, a popular online portal about history and culture on Guam and the Mariana Islands.

But Bevacqua said Guam has experienced a CHamoru renaissance in recent years. “People feel more excited, interested and hungry for their roots," hy het gesê.

In August, Guam’s governor, Lou Leon Guerrero, signed five bills that changed the names of southern villages to their CHamoru spellings. Mayors from Guam’s 19 villages also appeared before the Guam legislature to express their support.

The moves follow plans by the Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru, or CHamoru Language Commission, to restore village names that align with the CHamoru orthography, which dictates how words are spelled and pronounced.

According to Laura M Torres Souder, vice chairperson of the commission, the group proposes a name change, but the Guam legislature and governor make the final call.

Another of Guam’s villages, Inarajan, was also officially renamed Inalåhan in April.

Jesse LG Alig, mayor of the village Piti and president of the Mayors’ Council of Guam, said the ongoing effort to change village names represents a small but worthwhile effort.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to continue to promote our CHamoru language in whatever we can,” Alig said. “The village names are one way of doing that because it’s used almost every day, and one of the things we don’t do is speak CHamoru every day.”

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