$299K Grant To Help Pacific Islanders Understand Their Own Language

By Curtis Houck | July 23, 2013 | 5:24 PM EDT

Guam is about three times the size of Washington DC and has a population of around 178,000 people. The U.S. territory is home to Andersen Air Force Base. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(CNSNews.com) - A team from the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC) will spend nearly $300,000 of U.S. taxpayer money to study a rare language spoken by just 45,000 people in the Mariana Islands, which include the North Mariana Islands in Micronesia, a United States commonwealth, and Guam, a U.S. territory located in the northwestern Pacific.

"Chamorro is spoken by 45,000 people in the Mariana Islands, which are part of the U.S. and its possessions. It is currently in the early stages of language endangerment," according to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) grant abstract.

Chamorro is considered a language of the Austronesian people, the term given for a broader family of languages and peoples on islands all throughout Oceania and Eastern Asia. Researchers say "the experimental protocols developed can be extended to research on other languages not spoken in highly industrialized societies."

“Past studies of language comprehension have been limited to 'major' world languages (English, other European languages, Chinese, Japanese) and college-age students. This severely underrepresents the diversity of the world's languages and populations, and could potentially lead to scientific conclusions that are distorted or incomplete,” according to the abstract.

The research team, led by Dr. Matthew Wagers, a pyscholinguist at UCSC, "will undertake experimental studies that build on special linguistic features of Chamorro to uncover how Chamorro speakers comprehend their language in real time."

According to the abstract, residents of three of the islands of all ages and levels of education will be recruited for the study. That translates to about $6.65 per person in grant money to train "several young Chamorros" in the "goals and methods of the research." They will also "help administer the studies."

The abstract cites unique facts about Chamorro, such as the fact that the verb comes before the subject in their sentences; "verb agreement differentiates questions from non-questions; and sentence structure is affected by animacy (whether a noun is alive, dead, or a non-living entity)."

The research will also expose Pacific Islanders to “scientific research, and in so doing, will affirm the unique contributions that a language can make to the scientific understanding of human cognition."

Awarded on February 5, the $299,231 grant is slated to run through September 2016.

An NSF spokeswoman said that there has not been any feedback from the project since it was only awarded in April, but described the work of the NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences division on the whole as having "led to discoveries that have both enhanced fundamental knowledge and provided value to the American people.”

She also said that all NSF proposals are subject to "the same gold standard, merit review process to review all proposals submitted to the agency."

"This method ensures that all proposals submitted are reviewed in a fair, competitive, transparent, and in-depth manner by a peer-review panel of scientific experts in the relevant field(s). Every proposal is reviewed against two merit review criteria:  the intellectual merit of the proposal and the broader impacts of the project."