What Matters Most in Language Learning | Featured Columnists


Young children learn language throughout their lives. Provided they frequently hear it spoken all around them – in their homes, neighborhoods, media, church, playground, stores, parties and social gatherings. This early development should be reinforced at school and in other public places. We know that. Unfortunately, this no longer happens with the CHamoru language.

We have witnessed that young children acquire language skills. They try to imitate what they hear and keep repeating it until they succeed. While their attempts are often funny and make us laugh, we fire back with applause and words of affirmation. Often we exaggerate the reactions to encourage them on their language learning journey. This provides a stimulating environment for language development, in which toddlers learn to express themselves using words. It’s a must!

The social sciences have reminded us in a wide range of research findings that language-rich environments facilitate language learning. The reverse is also true. When children are immersed in a social environment where there is not much conversation and interaction, children learn to speak at a much slower rate.

Researchers have also found that what we say and how we say it matters. If command and control language is most of what young children hear, their language development is short-circuited. For example, if children hear: “Stop. Do not do that. Go to your room. Sleep. Be quiet.” or other such directives spoken in a stern voice, they freeze. These commands intimidate, they do not liberate. They do not stimulate the brain connections that stimulate the imagination while developing intelligence In other words, negative language has a negative impact.Unfortunately, this is often how heritage language is used when parents, grandparents, or caregivers talk to children.

When Sammy and a few of his dearest friends took up teaching Spanish to children, they made a pact not to use Spanish when they were upset or disciplining the children. They intuitively discerned that positive talk produces positive results. How right they were!

We have recently worked with several cohorts of CHamoru teachers. As we discussed the obstacles preventing children from learning Chamoru fluently, the teachers shared their own experiences and observations. They noted that many Chamoru-speaking parents and grandparents only speak Chamoru to their children when they scold or criticize them. So children learn words like “påra, båsta, påkaka’, or !??!…”– yes, command and control or swear.

Punitive and harsh words are not the way to make children love our mother tongue. Children grasp swear words faster than loving words because they hear these words spoken more frequently. Let’s not weaponize our language. If we want our children to speak Chamoru, we need to make the experience enjoyable and part of daily communication. Don’t scold your kids at CHAmoru!

I am neither naive nor delusional. I know we can’t go back to a time when all of Guåhan was a Chamoru-speaking community – like before the war. But, we can reconstruct the language-rich environments that are absolutely essential for learning to speak our native fino’ håya. The construction materials may be different but the plan remains constant.

Those of us who speak Chamoru, whether good or bad, must use it as our language of choice for communication. Chat with the kids while you cook, drive, clean the house, garden or go on a picnic. Read books in CHamoru or tell stories in CHamoru. Rocking a child to sleep while singing in Chamoru is priceless. Listen to CHamoru music. Use descriptive language when speaking. Point to things and describe what you see using lots of vocabulary words. Ask the children to repeat the words you use. Build a rich CHamoru language environment at home.

Dr. Dana Suskind, director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, urges parents around the world to do some very simple things to start their preschoolers on a path to academic success. The formula is simple: Connect to what interests the child; Alternately so that the exchange is interactive; Speak more – no one-word comments or questions that elicit one-word answers.

We can achieve results of miraculous proportions if we mobilize our linguistic knowledge into action. It’s like cooking rice on the stove. First attempts may end up limp, burnt, or undercooked. With practice, we become masters and our children can speak fluently.


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