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Our Oceania | Let’s Learn Chamorro/Let’s Learn Refaluwasch

GUAM and the CNMI have been allies in the battle to save local indigenous languages for many years. Now, thanks to the efforts of Valentina Rivera and her team of language teachers, the Mariana Islands have another weapon in their arsenal.

It began as “Ketungu Chamorro” or “Let’s Learn Chamorro,” an online, mobile-friendly video series that offers an introduction to the Chamorro language, starting with the A-B-Ch’s and spanning across a variety of subjects including vocabulary, conversational dialogue, and cultural practice. The lessons are taught by local instructors Jennie Magofna of G.T.C. Elementary; Elsie San Nicolas, Jack Camacho and Steph Mensah of Garapan Elementary; and Ana Lizama of W.S.R. Elementary.

A few months back, Rivera also launched “Let’s Learn Refalúwasch,” starring Gloria Rasiang of Francisco M. Sablan Middle School. Only two episodes into their first season, Let’s Learn Refalúwasch has already managed to cover the Refalúwasch alphabet, simple greetings, recipes, some sentence structure, and how to make a “love stick.”

And this isn’t Rivera’s first language project in the CNMI. She also spearheaded the Fino’ Chamorro language series back in 2015 with the support of Lumi Bermudes and Jackie Quitugua.

“For some odd reason I just fell back into this,” she said of returning to her work creating online language instruction videos. “Except this time, I wanted it to be different, because [Fino’ Chamorro] was solely language-based and I wanted more… when I was in school, there was more than just learning the sentence structures and vocabulary words, there was history and culture.”

The United Nations also sees language and culture as inherently linked and approach the preservation of both accordingly; Francisco Cali Tzay, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said that a culture’s language “represents the way of thinking of a people,” in a 2016 U.N. meeting that discussed indigenous peoples’ efforts to preserve and share their languages using information and communication technologies like WhatsApp, online karaoke songs, and social media. Rivera has crafted her own series to harness the same phone-friendly climate; she says over 75 percent of her viewers access her videos on their mobile phones.

Given Rivera’s devotion to the project, it might come as a surprise to some readers that she is of neither Chamorro nor Refalúwasch descent; she said it was her upbringing on Saipan that taught her the value of preserving the Chamorro and Refalúwasch cultures. And of course, she wasn’t alone in her vision — she teamed up with a variety of sponsors and partners to make the series happen, including the Office of Indigenous Affairs and the Northern Marianas Humanities Council.

And with both series launched, viewers from all over the world can enjoy an introduction to the Chamorro and Refalúwasch languages and cultures. In fact, Rivera said that her website attracts viewers from Chile, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and various European countries.

This global interest in fairly small-scale indigenous languages may be explained by a philosophy expressed in that same 2016 U.N. meeting by Lenni Montiel, U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. In his closing remarks, Montiel said that the preservation of indigenous languages “is the preservation of invaluable wisdom, traditional knowledge and expressions of art and beauty… we have to make sure that we do not lose this.”

While Rivera has made startling progress in the past year, she told Variety that her project’s speedy progress was not immune to the notorious Typhoon Yutu.

“It has been hard working on the episodes because of having no power,” she said. “We hope that CUC will get us back on track.”

Once she’s up and running again, she’s planning to reformat and expand Let’s Learn Chamorro and Let’s Learn Refalúwasch into six ten-episode seasons, organized into three 20-episode levels: Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced.

“We hope that both Let’s Learn Chamorro and Let’s Learn Refalúwasch will have a full 6-season run for each show,” she said. “Just keep tuning in to watch the shows and enjoy learning Chamorro and Refalúwasch, only on mycnmi.com/education.”