Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sunday, May 13, 2001

UH professor tries to
stay the loss of Guam’s
native tongue

FAYE Untalan is doing her small part to preserve a dying language. Her language. The native language of Guam and the rest of the Mariana Islands.

It's an uphill battle, probably even a futile one.

Untalan, a University of Hawaii public health professor, fears the Chamorro language will be all but dead in 30 years or so.

Too many young Chamorros don't speak the language. Too many aren't interested in learning it. Too many can't pass it on to the next generations.

But for more than a decade, Untalan has taught Chamorro to small groups of UH students in independent-study classes. Nothing formal. Nothing official. Nothing for which she even got paid.

Yet Untalan, a former Guam resident whose first language was Chamorro and who didn't speak any English when she started elementary school, figured her teachings would be one small way to slow the language's demise, to help students who wanted to learn what many were discouraged from learning while growing up.

Now she'll have a more formal platform.

The university recently approved her request to offer Chamorro 101, the first such college-level class to be taught outside Guam. The course will be offered in the fall semester and registration is open to anyone.

Untalan realizes her effort likely won't make much of a difference in the big picture. "It's just a spit in the ocean, but it's better than no spit at all."

On Guam, Chamorro classes are required in public elementary and secondary schools. A Chamorro commission is working to preserve the language. And other steps have been taken as part of a broader effort to promote awareness of the Chamorro culture.

Despite such efforts, the language continues to erode. Many Chamorro parents believe their children will fare better in the job world being proficient in English only. A survey last year of a middle school on Saipan, where the language historically has thrived, showed that only 40 percent of its graduates were fluent in Chamorro. A decade ago virtually everyone would have been.

Several Chamorro students who took Untalan's independent-study class recalled growing up on Guam speaking only English, even though their parents spoke Chamorro to each other.

"It was like a secret language," said graduate student Dominica Tolentino. "As soon as older people started speaking Chamorro, you knew they were talking about something they didn't want you to understand."

Untalan said the language started declining in the 1950s and 60s, coinciding with the period in which children were penalized for speaking Chamorro in Guam schools.

Melvin Won Pat Borja, a UH sophomore, says his mother was fined 5 cents whenever she was caught. "That was when a nickel could buy you a lunch, so it was a fat tax," Borja says.

It's ironic that UH students like Tolentino and Borja are learning the language now that they've left the island.

For that, they can thank Untalan.

Or, as they would say in Chamorro, si yu'us ma'ase.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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