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Standing up for a Niche Language

How linguistic students are contributing to the preservation of Chamorro

Teaching & Studies

Chamorro is threatened with extinction: the language is now only spoken by about 50,000 people as a mother tongue, mainly on the island of Guam. The linguistics students Salka Zufall, Lisa Schremmer and Iuliia Loktionova want to use digital field research to help preserve Chamorro. The highlight of their work so far: they presented their findings at a digital conference.

The world has about six thousand languages, but the number of speakers is very unevenly distributed. While about half of the world’s population speaks one of 19 major languages such as English, Spanish or Russian, according to UNESCO, about 3,000 languages are threatened with extinction. This means that they are often only still spoken by older people or only in private settings.

These languages include Chamorro, the native language of about 50,000 people on the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Linguistics students Salka Zufall, Lisa Schremmer and Iuliia Loktionova spent three quarters of a year working with it. In December 2022, they even presented their findings at an international conference. But how did they come up with this unusual research topic?

How Spanish Shaped Chamorro

The origin of their work was the seminar “Chamorro: Field Research over the Internet,” which Thomas Stolz conducted in the 2022 summer semester. The professor of linguistics at the University of Bremen has been working on Chamorro since 1996. “Originally, I was particularly fascinated by how strongly the language has been shaped by Spanish,” he says.

This influence is testimony to the eventful past of the Mariana Islands. In the 17th century, the Spaniards began to conquer it. A war ended in 1690 with the complete subjugation of the indigenous population. From then on, the Marianas were part of the Viceroyality of New Spain for a long time – a fact that is still reflected in Chamorro.

In 1898, the area fell to the United States. They established English as an everyday language and banned Chamorro at school or at work until the 1970s. As a result, the number of speakers decreased rapidly: on Guam, the largest island of the Mariana Islands, an estimated 75% of the population could speak Chamorro at the end of the 19th century, and a hundred years later it was only about 20%.

Linguistic Research – Necessary, but Scarce

In the meantime, there has been a shift in mindset, so that children, for example, learn Chamorro at school. However, linguistic research on the language currently only takes place at two locations worldwide: the University of Bremen and the University of California in Santa Cruz. “In order to preserve its language and thus its cultural independence, the Chamorro language community relies on external researchers,” summarizes Thomas Stolz. Because if a language is lost, certain ways of thinking and customs would disappear with it.

The three students therefore see documenting and preserving Chamorro for future generations as the main objective of their work. The fact that the native Chamorro speakers exchanged ideas with them is not something they would have expected. “We don’t explain their language to them, but they let us share their knowledge,” emphasizes Iuliia Loktionova. “We are very grateful for the time that our dialog partners took for us.”

Online Field Research with Fill-in-the-Blank Texts

The students each selected a specific research question for their work. They were bases on some works by Thomas Stolz on the written Chamorro. “We wanted to find out to what extent his findings can be applied to spoken statements,” says Salka Zufall. To this end, the students digitally provided their contact persons with fill-the-blank texts. They then chose which words, in their opinion, best fit the gaps.

Lisa Schremmer, for example, dealt with the grammatical gender of words – a concept that doesn’t actually exist in Chamorro. “The words with separate masculine or feminine forms are all borrowed from Spanish,” she explains. Thomas Stolz has already identified 300 of these word pairs. In her research, the student investigated, among other things, the extent to which the different forms are still used and whether the masculine or feminine form is predominant.

Twelve Chamorro speakers participated in the project, among them Chamorro teachers, a pastor who performs services on Chamorro, and a lecturer at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. All of them were bilingual, so the students were able to present their research project to them in digital meetings in English and explain the fill-the-gap texts. Due to the time difference, there were some unusual working hours. “Sometimes we got up at five in the morning to have our conversations,” says Iuliia Loktionova.

The Conference Does not Mean the End of the Research

Some of her contacts also attended the international digital conference in December 2022, where the students presented their research results. It was organized by Dr. Carlos Madrid, director of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC), an affiliated institute of the University of Guam. He approached Thomas Stolz about the work of his students. In the past, students of Thomas Stolz had regularly taken part in MARC conferences. “I regularly encourage outstanding students to take this risk,” he says.

The conference was not only an opportunity for the students to take stock of their work to date, they also had to explain their research to a broad audience of around 40 people – from the research approach to initial results. However, they are more provisional in nature, as the group of respondents was too small to make representative statements. With a stay in Guam, the students want to go into their research in more detail. “We hope to spend a practical semester there this year to collect materials for our final theses,” says Lisa Schremmer.

And Thomas Stolz also has more than enough research topics. For example, he is working on an electronic corpus in which written and spoken Chamorro is to be documented. The training of further junior researchers is also important to him – to ensure that Chamorro continues to occupy its place in academic research.

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