English billed as language of “success”

As a result of America’s victory in the Spanish-American War, Spain sold Guam to the United States in 1898. Before long, it was determined that the US Navy would administer Guam. On 7 August 1899, Captain Richard Leary, the first American naval governor, arrived on the island and established the first naval administration. At the time, three quarters of the adult population spoke and wrote in the native tongue of Chamorro. About 50 percent also spoke and wrote Spanish, while English was familiar to a small minority who had worked on whaling ships or at the port town of Sumay in southern Guam.

“No Chamorro” rules

In 1917, Naval Government Executive General Order No. 243 under Governor Roy Campbell Smith banned speaking Chamorro, and

…designated English as only official language of Guam and ordered that “Chamorro must not be spoken except for official interpreting.

Speaking Chamorro was also forbidden on baseball fields, a sport growing in popularity, to encourage English use. In the early 1920s, “No Chamorro” policies were implemented and enforced within the schools and playgrounds. Public school students were reprimanded or penalized for speaking their native language. This policy continued after World War II. Outside of public schools (with the exception of primary grade schools where Chamorro was used as an adjunct language) Chamorro was the only practical language to use since most people spoke it better than English. Additionally, when people went to court, there were Chamorro interpreters so that people could use their language.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, naval governors made it a priority to increase knowledge of English on the island especially for children. Governor Leary made a commitment, as shown by his issuance of General Order No. 12 on 22 January 1900, to provide instruction in the English language.

As written in the order, it was “expected that the present force of native teachers will cheerfully and harmoniously cooperate with the teachers of English that the greatest benefits may be derived by both scholars and preceptors.” But there were not yet enough qualified English-speaking teachers on the island to set up a large scale educational system.

To further enhance the naval administration’s belief that command of the English language would somehow improve the Chamorro people, the very next day, 23 January 1900, Governor Leary put forth General Order No. 13, with a provision that recommended residents make every effort to “learn how to read, write, and speak the English language, thereby improving their own mental condition,” so they would be better able to help their children who had to go to school.

In Dr. Robert A. Underwood’s Guampedia entry on “Education During the US Naval Era” he writes:

One principal argued that citizens and teachers who do not improve their English skills are really committing criminal deeds to the public and especially future generations.

Chamorro-English dictionaries burned

Formal schools were established in 1904 by the Navy with basic English skills instruction and sanitation the top priorities. Still, by the early 1920s, Governor Adelbert Althouse (7 February 1922 – 8 December 1922) noted that “few school children could speak English with any degree of efficiency” and Chamorro remained the predominant language in Chamorro homes. Althouse’s response to the problem was to collect and burn Chamorro-English dictionaries and to institute a “no Chamorro” rule in the classroom and playground.

Ironically, the Chamorro-English dictionary burned by Governor Althouse was written by US Navy Paymaster Edward von Preissig and printed at Navy expense just four years earlier. Dictionary and Grammar of the Chamorro Language of the Island of Guam was printed by the Navy and distributed in Guam to help Chamorros learn the meaning of English, according to its forward. Preissig was assisted in creating the dictionary by Vicente Calvo, Jose Cruz, Pedro Martinez, Vicente Herrero, Atanacio Perez, Jose Roberto, Juan Taitano and Francisco Taitano, all of Hagåtña. He also credited J. Schnabel, superintendent of the schools, Agueda Johnston, a teacher at the time, and his own wife, Hester von Preissig, a member of the Guam Normal School faculty, for their assistance.

Unhappy with the level of education being offered their children, members of the Guam Congress petitioned the Department of the Navy for major improvements. As a result, Althouse began making changes including replacing the superintendent and the teacher training with new personnel. The Normal School, a school to train teachers, saw its beginnings as a night high school at this time.

These drastic measures did not seem to work either since as late as 1939, Chamorro was still the primary language of the Chamorro people on Guam. The Guam Congress still conducted sessions in Chamorro and many Chamorro youths had limited knowledge of English.

Later educational evolutions under different Naval governors included the opening of the island’s first public high school George Washington High School, which opened in the mid-1930s. More schools were built and enrollment numbers increased, but lessons on cleanliness and basic English seemed to remain the main goals of primary schools. Enrollment numbers in high school were extremely limited and there was little offered in terms of vocational education.

Penalties for speaking Chamorro

The experience of the Naval government in turning Chamorros into English speakers points to the fact that Chamorros, despite demonstrating loyalty to the United States, retained their own identity and did not feel compelled to abandon their language and culture. Most Chamorros had little contact with the American Naval administration on a daily basis. Their lives revolved around the Catholic church, ranching and extended-family obligations. For the majority of Chamorros, the only part of life where English speaking was emphasized was in school, but at the time, education was only compulsory up to the age of twelve.

In the pre-World War II school system, which lacked social promotion, and in which many children did not speak English well, this meant that most 12-year olds only advanced to the 3rd or 4th grades. Once their school career was over, children had little incentive to speak English in their daily lives and English language skills would rapidly decline.

For students who continued in school past the fourth grade, enforcement of English language was strict. Children received reprimands or a “ticket” when caught speaking Chamorro. However, if another student was caught, then the ticket would be passed on to the new offender. Whoever was left with the ticket at the end of the day faced corporal punishment. Monetary fines replaced the ticket system in the 1930s for infractions of the language rules. Top students were selected as monitors who enforced English-only rules and collected the fines.

After World War II and the 1944 recapture of the island and re-establishment of the American education system, the English-only policies and the fine system were revived. This practice continued for several more years, even after the passage of the 1950 Organic Act of Guam (which gave the Chamorro people some rights and limited self-governance as American citizens) as people were made to believe that English was somehow superior to Chamorro.

Limitations for non-English speakers

Chamorros by the 1930s were heavily influenced by American films and music and were mixing various English words like “okay” into Chamorro speech. English was also the language of the print media and military newspapers such as the Guam Recorder, which was distributed to the public, constantly reminded Chamorros that English was the language of success. Chamorro remained the main language in nongovernmental activities, but it was looked down upon by naval administrators who for decades continued with efforts to suppress it, considering it a “cognitive deficiency.”

Despite the slow acceptance of English among the majority of Chamorros who maintained a traditional lifestyle based on agriculture and fishing, there was growing proficiency among the elites. By 1940, it was recorded in a census that English was spoken by 75 percent of Guam’s population over the age of ten. In 1941, a Navy official noted that:

One hears occasional English conversations on the street, something unheard of a few years ago.

Not speaking English began to present more limitations for the community. If one wanted to work for the Navy in fields such as education, nursing or law enforcement English was required. This trend toward English would accelerate in the immediate post-war era as the military and later, the civilian government would open up many more jobs for English speakers. Non-elite Chamorros who, in the past, had few interactions with English speakers now had to learn how to speak English well if they wanted to gain employment with the government.

By Michael R. Clement, Jr.


For further reading

Armknecht, R.F. “English in the Homes of Guam.” Guam Recorder 18, no. 4 (July 1941): 139-141, 165-166.

Thompson, Laura M. Guam and Its People. With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Underwood, Robert A. “American Education and the Acculturation of the Chamorros of Guam.” EdD diss., University of Southern California, 1987.

–––. “English and Chamorro on Guam.” World Englishes 8, no. 1 (1989): 73-82.