Speak the Native Tongue

June 14, 2017 Lacee A.C. Martinez

TROY AGUON IS PROUD of his local upbringing.

In the lush hills of Manenggon, he grew up the old-fashioned way under the thumb of his grandparents. "We did the farming thing where we had animals we slaughtered for food. We harvested all the vegetables, and I had my chores where we fed the chickens, pastured the cow," he says.

He feels blessed because he had elders around speaking the native tongue of Guam—Chamorro. The young Aguon, however, never learned to speak back. "Chamorro is all they spoke. So I'm fluent in receiving it. I knew what they were saying. It was common throughout the households of my time,” he reveals. “You never looked twice because you go to your uncle's house, your auntie’s house, they spoke Chamorro. But to the kids, it's English."

Now 43, Aguon is on a mission to correct the disconnect. He's the president and publisher of the Learn Chamorro Project, working side-by-side with his wife Maria, who's Filipino. The project's mission is to create and design youth-friendly games to make learning the Chamorro language fun for the whole family. They're taking the digital approach, using modern technology, including mobile phone apps, to keep users engaged.

The idea came to him after he lived in Nevada for years with his family. He was hungry for Guam and its language. "When I got home, right away we went to the bookstores and libraries. But there were no books at the time, nothing kid-friendly. There were only those scholarly books, and they were very formal. There's nothing wrong with them, but it wasn't anything I was familiar with," Aguon recalled.

The whole family, including the couple’s children, is now learning together while pushing to help others with the project.

Learn Chamorro got off the ground in 2011 with the launch of its website and the Learn Chamorro Language DVD aimed at kids. "We're no longer producing and selling it because we're heading toward the video lessons," Maria Aguon says. "And you have to pay for a DVD, but we really want our products to be free."

Kids today are fairly tech savvy, even the small ones, which is why the Aguons chose smartphone apps as the next phase of the project. "We saw the kids were always on the phone, so the progression towards the app was the natural direction," Aguon says. "We know that kids are already comfortable and enjoy posting content on these social media channels. It only makes sense for us to give them the tools they currently embrace to expose them to learning the Chamorro language.”

The Aguons work with the Chamorro-language community, including Michael Bevacqua of the University of Guam, as well as current and former Guam Department of Education's Chamorro Studies & Special Projects Division Administrators Ronald Laguana and Rufina Mendiola to help verify content.

The first of the apps is The Learn Chamorro language app, a simple drag-and-match game using pictures and corresponding words in Chamorro. The words even have a play button for audio, a way for users to hear how the word is pronounced. In less than three months of its release, the app peaked in the Google TOP 100 Most Downloaded Free Apps, among a million other apps, Aguon proudly proclaims.

The next app takes learning Chamorro up another level. The Chamorro Challenge app includes a growing dictionary with more than a thousand words, which are searchable in English and Chamorro, and some even include photos as well as an audio for the proper pronunciation. "We're adding [more content] every week. So this app is always going to be growing," Aguon says. It also includes words and phrases of the day, as well as whole sections of phrases for everyday use.

 The Learn Chamorro Project hit another milestone this year when it partnered with GDOE's Chamorro Studies division. The partnership included participation from 144 Chamorro teachers who used the Learn Chamorro apps to help encourage students to play, learn, and speak in Chamorro. It also featured an interactive component with prize incentives for participants who submitted audio or video in practice, the challenge portion of the app.

"We know that kids are already comfortable and enjoy posting content on these social media channels. It only makes sense for us to give them the tools they currently embrace to expose them to learning the Chamorro language.”

"For the kids, we want them to take it home and use this for social media. We think the formula to get them involved is using the free stuff, shirts, free food, Chuck E. Cheese, and all that."

The project’s reach continues to grow, as it provides content for the Guam Daily Post’s Chamorro crossword puzzles and the Saturday Kids Post Edition, as well the Guam Visitors Bureau’s monthly newsletter.

To keep everything free, the project relies on support from corporate and community partners, industries that stretch from telecommunications to banking. “We're so blessed with the overwhelming support, and we're hoping we have the momentum to maintain it,” Aguon says.” But like my mentor Mike Bevacqua says, you can have all of the tools in the world, all of the apps, the answers, all of the education, but if you don’t speak it, you’re just kidding yourself. It’s one of the things I’m trying to do now, speak it anywhere I interact outside. I try to speak it to people, let them know I’m trying. Hopefully, with the free content, people will use it at home and start using it outside.”


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About the Author

Lacee A.C. Martinez

Guam born and raised, this contributor has an affinity for island life, people, food and culture. Got a story idea? Email her at lacee@kuam.com.

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