The Indigenous Identify Conference on Sept. 29, 2017, at Pacific Islands Club Saipan appears to have sparked a grassroots movement in the Marianas to promote the greater usage of the Chamorro and Carolinian languages in homes, business, and public. At the conference, a few of us made an impromptu pledge to speak Chamorro or Carolinian first every Friday over the next year. The rules were simple. Speak Chamorro or Carolinian first. If necessary to accomplish the task, feel free to switch to English or other languages.
I spent my early childhood in Maine, and my first language is English. When I was a child my mother sewed a parrot patch on my bathrobe as an inside joke with my father, because apparently, I never stopped talking. I went on to major in Broadcasting and feel I had the last laugh when I started getting paid to talk. I initially learned Carolinian for practical reasons around age 10 when we moved to Saipan: so no one could talk about me behind my back in school! I laugh when non-speakers comment on how fluent I appear to be, because I still have a lot to learn, especially “deep” and respectful words. Of course, most Carolinians also know some Chamorro, which is why I can also understand much of what is said in Chamorro, although I am quite apling when I speak it.
Last Thursday I warned—I mean, informed—my Facebook friends of my intentions: “…Let’s get our language out there, yes?! Agupa todu-hit tafan fino Chamorro yan Refaluwasch i’finenena gi gima, gi publiku, yan gi trabaju. Huggan pat ahi? Lai nge sibwe kapas Refalawasch put Remorales hom lool iimw, reel angang, me lool publiku. Aweer pat ehe? I decided not to be too concerned if my spelling or grammar needed correction, at this point. I also made sure to tag my husband and son, who would likely have the greatest shock—I mean, adjustment. And I certainly didn’t want to have to try to explain it to them in Chamorro or Carolinian the next day!
I woke up the next morning to a text from my sister in Guam. “…I’ll try to call you on my way home tonite if it’s ok. Love you plenty. :)” The best I could reply without risking disorienting her was. “Lesoor mwaymway! Yes!” (Good morning! Yes!) Oops, I just realized we’d be talking for at least 20 minutes when she called later.
I wondered if people would be offended that I spoke to them in a language I knew they didn’t understand, when English was readily available. That’s when I started seriously considering how much I could avoid communicating that day, for simplicity sake. Not such a good start to the day for a public relations professional. I also had to decide if I would speak to my husband in Chamorro, which he would hear most often in the community, or Carolinian, which might eventually (gasp!) grant him understanding of my private family conversations. I decided on Carolinian, because although he might have less exposure to it in the community, it was ultimately the language that will bring him the closest family relationships and a deeper understanding of me, his loving, wise, and beautiful wife.
My first email of the day was a brief thank you to a Guamanian for a donation, “Un dangkulu na si Yu’use ma’ase! Si Cat” I added a translation and a brief line of explanation, “It’s Speak Chamorro and Carolinian First Friday!” Given the Chamorro cultural renaissance on Guam, I was hopeful he’d graciously understand.
I started thinking about how happy other Chamorros and Carolinians might feel about getting a message in our native language. Probably have a good laugh at my poor spelling and grammar, too. But there would also be a sense of “us” that comes when only you share a language with someone.
Next was an email to a group, including Filipinos, Italians, and Chamorros (yes, Saipan’s like that). I made sure to start with “Buenas dias,” which cuts across all three cultures. Amazing, isn’t it? Again, I provided a translation and explanation. That’s also when I discovered the English-Chamorro dictionary online at glosbe.com/en/ch and learned the word lakse. Look it up. That’s also about the time I realized just how time-consuming emails would be that day! I read another email, and decided I could delay my “thanks” and follow-up details until after Friday. This was going to take some adjustment, and I was going to have to learn a lot more words fast.
Surprisingly, my two-line email to make an airline booking with a local travel agency prompted a quick, informative and much lengthier reply in Chamorro. So Chamorro can be first in business, too?! Three of us in the email thread had a quick exchange on how we were each enthusiastic to practice and learn our language more. My new acquaintance at the travel agency even proposed a regular email exchange to talk more.
On a side note, one thing I love about Palau (I know, there are so many things to like) is that they always speak Palauan first in public gatherings. If necessary for those in attendance, they will translate to English. They obviously highly value their language, and it remains strong.
Not everything last Friday was a breeze. A couple non-speakers seemed to shut down mentally, even when I offered just basic greetings. One fluent associate replied in broken English, which was puzzling. I was a few minutes late to an appointment due to a miscommunication on transportation. My husband got understandably a bit frustrated when I spoke to him in Carolinian and forgot to translate, leaving him totally lost. Admittedly, it was a relief when I had a couple afternoon meetings with non-speakers, so I could revert to English after salutations. And thank goodness my sister didn’t call until Saturday. By the time dinnertime rolled around, I was mentally exhausted. Speaking to other Chamorro and Carolinian speakers was easy and rewarding, but speaking and writing to non-speakers had been challenging. Dinner was a welcomed mix of speakers and non-speakers, so I got to use Carolinian, Chamorro, and English. OK, mostly English. I decided to relieve my brain next week by following the Jewish concept of a “day”; I will begin at sunset on Thursday so I can finish by sunset on Friday. Hey, if that’s how Jesus marked his days, it’s good enough for me!
My biggest surprise and encouragement was how responsive people were to the idea of Speak Chamorro and Carolinian Fridays. Many speakers were happy to speak the languages and would do so, if prompted. It seemed we just needed to make the mental shift from being on English autopilot. I also recognized I was quite hesitant to share the language with non-speakers, as I felt they would feel offended that I deliberately used a language they didn’t understand. I supposed a few words of greeting are fine, unless they’re interested in more. I mean, although Chamorro and Carolinian are also official languages of the Commonwealth, we’re not trying to beat people over the head with them; we just want to preserve and share our indigenous cultures.
Culture is contained in language. I learned two new words on the first day of this adventure: isinentek-ku (my feeling) and hinasok-ku (my thought). What beautiful words to know! If we make an effort to keep our Chamorro and Carolinian languages alive, we will keep the aspects of our cultures held in those words. Refaluwasch is the language that bonds my family, and I enjoy trying to speak Chamorro because it also builds bonds…and it gives my friends a good laugh. Let’s make “Speak Chamorro and Carolinian Friday” official in the Marianas. Abiba i lenguahita! Mwereightei mwaliyasch! Honor our languages! And feel free to correct my spelling.
Catherine Perry is owner of Integrity Communication, a PR firm.