Many passive bilinguals I’ve met have expressed keen interest in becoming active CHamoru speakers. I’ve been told that my last few columns on the subject have provoked lively discussion and inspired hope in those who are eager to reconnect with their mother tongue. As I was musing on what such a crossing would entail, it occurred to me that the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving could serve as a great analogy.
Let’s begin by looking at the essential equipment needed for each. To engage in snorkeling, you will need a mask, snorkel and fins. Knowing how to swim or float is basic. Comfort and familiarity with being in the water will allow you to enjoy what lies just beneath the surface of the ocean. It is fairly safe and doesn’t require that you take much risk. Enjoyable but limited in scope.
Scuba diving is entirely different. The requirements are much more complex. Scuba diving equipment includes a mask, snorkel, dry or wet suit, undersea camera, regulator, compressed gas tank, buoyancy compensator, diving gloves, depth gauge and fins. The scuba diver is able to submerge and become enthralled by the marine life that lies way below the surface. A whole new universe becomes accessible to the scuba diver.
Jennifer Palmer, in her internet article, "Top 10 Health Benefits of SCUBA," explains the transformation that awaits when you graduate from snorkeling to scuba diving: “The water has many healing effects, one of which is the way it brings you back to feeling like you are in your mother’s womb. This promotes feelings of security, well-being and happiness. In addition, being in salt water for long periods of time can cause your body to dehydrate meaning that you tend to drink a lot more after the dive which means that you are replenishing your cells, receiving all of the benefits of water both externally and internally.”
Similarly, this is what awaits the passive bilingual who may dabble at the surface, enjoy island life, experience glimpses of insights from being familiar with spoken CHamoru like snorkelers. As they venture into deeper waters, they realize that without the proper equipment and know-how, they can’t go into the depths to really experience the universe underneath, as scuba divers are able to, and as fluent, active CHamoru speakers do, when they dive deep into the language to discover a whole new way of seeing, understanding and connecting.
If you’re a CHamoru language snorkeler, search for opportunities to learn CHamoru as a second language. Learn to swim with the new equipment. It’s going to feel strange. You may not venture far from shore or dive deep at first. But with practice and careful guidance from first-language speakers, you will be able to enter, as Palmer describes, the total embrace of the "womb experience" of your mother tongue. Language is and continues to be the umbilical cord to culture.
Seek diving partners. Practice through language conversational exchanges. These are one-on-one opportunities to interact by simply speaking with someone who is fluent. This is best done daily. Scuba diving is a full immersion experience. Learning to speak CHamoru requires the same full immersion technique. Seize opportunities to take classes or learn at your own speed through UmeyakCHamoru.com. Conscious, deliberate, consistent and disciplined engagement are the key to scuba diving in CHamoru.
Just as graduating from snorkeling to scuba diving requires investing the time to learn new skills, using different and more complex equipment, and taking risks you never had to take, crossing over from being a passive bilingual to becoming a fluent CHamoru speaker will require that you stay the course. You can do it!