I started offering my free lessons to the CHamoru language community via Zoom in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After years of offering them in local cafes, including Java Junction in Hagåtña, I decided to switch to an online format once the cafes started to close. Although I never really liked teaching online, the change has paid off tremendously. I was able to reach many more students than ever before by hosting my classes on Zoom rather than in person.
More than two years later, however, the cafes have long been open, although unfortunately Java Junction has been permanently closed due to COVID-19. Despite the reopening of things, I continue to organize my free CHAmoru language courses online. The main reason for this is that many of the hundreds of students who have taken my Zoom courses live in the Diaspora, or outside the Marianas, across the United States.
For so many of these students, their resources in terms of learning about their heritage, their history and especially their language have been limited. It’s true that there are more books than ever that have been printed in CHamoru that you can buy online. There are also sites like www.learningCHamoru.com which offer an online dictionary and lessons and quizzes for CHamoru learners.
But the problem with these resources remains that they don’t provide a living sense of community to people. Although ideal for a family or small group, languages are social organisms, they need a community to exist and thrive. They are also best learned through broader community interactions.
While many US CHmorus can use these resources, the motivation, practice, and enrichment are all tentative, as you could largely learn the language on your own, in partial isolation. You may not have family or friends around you to practice with. This sense of being part of something bigger and deeper is a key part of learning not just any language, but your home language – the language tied to your ethnicity or your culture.
Learning your native language isn’t just about learning something so you can barter or order when you visit a foreign country. It’s a process of finding something that might be important to you, but due to various forces, you weren’t taught it before. This can make some very motivated to learn, but for most it makes learning more difficult because there is added pressure. You don’t just learn the language for fun, but you learn it as part of discovering where you come from.
For so many students who have taken my Zoom classes, that is exactly what the classes have provided them. Not just a chance to hear CHamoru or read CHamoru, but a chance to feel like they’re part of a larger movement to learn the language. And what makes me so happy and proud is how some students have used the open space of my classes, to organize and create more resources and opportunities for others who want to learn. In next week’s column, I’ll discuss how students in my Zoom classes took on the challenge of developing a CHamoru language immersion program for adults that we’re piloting in Guam this month.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and curator of the Guam Museum.