Kumision i Fino’ CHamoru project coordinator Francine Naputi didn't grow up learning her native language.
"I really did go through hearing my parents speak it to each other but never to me," Naputi said.
It was only through her partner's grandmother – a first language CHamoru speaker – that she picked it up and speaks it more frequently.
"Words are incredibly complex," she said. "The CHamoru language can change words in five or six different ways and if you don't know the root of that word then the meaning gets completely lost."
Naputi has become a part of an effort to formally document and create a repository for the CHamoru language.
The University of Guam recently won a $275,000 Documenting Endangered Languages grant. It's the first-ever National Science Foundation grant awarded to the liberal arts college to fund the project, "Developing CHamoru Language Infrastructure: Goggue Yan Chachalani Mo’na I Fino’-ta (Embrace and Make a Way Forward for Our Language).”
First language users are those who spoke CHamoru before they learned any other language, according to Robert Underwood, a co-principal investigator on the grant and president emeritus of UOG.
"The purpose of the grant is to document CHamoru language grammatical features from first language users of CHamoru and we guess what we are really talking about are people who are likely to have been born in the 1930's and maybe in the 1940's," Underwood said. "Almost everyone else that speaks CHamoru today is either a second language learner and so we are trying to discover and document that first language grammatical features."
The project will select 10 people whose first language is CHamoru. Then, over a three-year period, those individuals will identify traditional terms and cultural practices related to several cultural areas and produce recordings to be archived.
"It's difficult for us to see what the future of CHamoru is going to be like but here we are at a moment where we can take a snapshot of the language," said David A. Ruskin, a co-principal investigator on the grant and assistant professor of linguistics at UOG. "The way that the language is spoken right now tells us a lot about what ideas are important to the CHamoru people now and the ideas handed down from the ancestors."
Andrea Berez-Kroeker, a consultant on the grant, from the University of Hawaii Kapiolani Language Archive said they will be making audio and video recordings, as well as transcribing and translating it in a way to ensure the files are accessible in the future.
Berez-Kroeker said the material will be preserved at the University of Hawaii. The grant will build a local repository at the Micronesian Area Research Center, where the recordings will be kept, as well.
The documentation from the project will also be accessible at a later time through an archive at MARC, as well as, through a YouTube channel, podcast and social media.