At a military club in Milpitas, California during the mid-’90s, former classmates reconnected and reminisced about their shared high school experience in Guam and the years state-side since, speaking in their native tongue: Chamorro. Their teachers, predominantly American, addressed the gathering in the only language they could speak, English. 

Sandy Chung, a Chinese-American researcher at UC Santa Cruz who worked closely with the high school reunion’s organizer to learn and study Chamorro, was invited to speak at the event. When it came time for her speech, she delivered it entirely in perfect Chamorro — much to the surprise of those present. 

Her husband, renowned linguist and UCSC Professor Emeritus Jim McCloskey, was also in attendance.

“Jaws just dropped. For the first time, the community members were seeing their language spoken in an ordinary place, on an ordinary Saturday, by someone from a tight-knit community,” McCloskey said. “Someone who made it worth their while to understand, then use [Chamorro] publicly, as opposed to everyone else speaking. They were astonished.”

Chung is now a Distinguished Professor Emerita at UCSC who has spent her career documenting and studying understudied languages. Her primary focus is on the Austronesian language family spoken across the Pacific with an emphasis on Chamorro, a native language of the Mariana Islands.

“A long time ago, it came to my attention that the only way for understudied languages, like Chamorro, to have an impact on linguistic theory was for someone to study them in that much depth,” Chung said. “So that’s just what I’ve done my entire life. It’s been extremely interesting.”

Chung focuses her research on understudied languages for several reasons. According to Chung, only studying widely spoken languages ignores all potential insights and implications that other languages have on our knowledge of the human language capacity. On a human level, it offers Chung opportunities to help the communities she is studying through her work. She was admitted to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April of 2022, in recognition of her contributions to linguistic study and service to Chamorro speakers.

“Not that many linguists are members,” Chung said. “It just didn’t seem to be on the horizon, so it was just very surprising.” 

Ruth Kramer, associate professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and UCSC PhD alumna, recalls Chung’s qualities that have enabled her success. Chung served as a co-chair of Kramer’s dissertation committee.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences dates back to 1780. It was founded by John Adams, John Hancock, and others. It has strived to “advance the common good” by “honoring excellence and leadership across disciplines.” Actress Glenn Close and novelist Salman Rushdie are two inductees honored alongside Chung this year. 

“She has a renowned ability to see right to the heart of a problem, and to ask the crucial question that can unravel or solidify a syntactic analysis,” Kramer said in an email.

Studying less documented languages requires extensive fieldwork. This has involved several trips a year to the Mariana Islands for nearly 50 years to learn about Chamorro from locals. Her fieldwork entails conversations and experiments with native speakers. Though McCloskey has not partnered with Chung directly on fieldwork, he has been a longtime observer of it. 

“[She’s] always listening for what the speakers report about their own language and their own sense of it; their own intuition about it. It’s very empathetic,” McCloskey said. “What she brings to the task principally is a sense that if you agree to work with her you’re being listened to, you’ll be respected, and there’ll also be something of benefit to your community.”

Matt Wagers, a professor in the UCSC linguistics department and a longtime collaborator of Chung, explained how their work both impacts the scientific community and benefits Chamorro speakers, if only tangentially.

“It’s really important for minoritized languages, and languages that don’t have a lot of socio-economic status, that people have conversations about their inherent value,” Wagers said. “[We’re] creating visibility in the linguistic and scientific community about this language, which many people have never encountered.”

Since Chung began studying Chamorro, the language has become endangered, largely due to the presence of the United States in the Mariana Islands and the economic advantages promised to English speakers. She’s helped thwart this trend through informal partnerships with public schools that want to teach bilingual classes but lack the resources. 

In 2008, she began work on a Chamorro grammar reference. She was able to publish it in 2020, making it free to access. By sharing her research and helping to develop resources, young people on the islands can learn and continue the tradition of the language.

“Academic publishing can really erect barriers,” Wagers said, referring to hurdles like paywalls that often thwart the pursuit of knowledge. “And it was important for Sandy that anyone be able to access the results, especially the Chamorro speakers.”

The same care and commitment that Sandy Chung brings to the advancement of knowledge are present in her distribution of it, both to the native speakers of the language she’s studying and to the students of the classes she’s taught.

“As a child, I always wanted to be a teacher, but what I wanted to teach changed as I got older,” Chung said. “When I was in high school, I wanted to be a high school French teacher. Then when I went to college, I wanted to be a college teacher.”

Chung’s passion for undergraduate teaching is similar to her compulsion to studying under-studied and under-appreciated languages. Often dismissed by other academics, she sees the opportunity to positively affect people while also learning from them. 

“She knows what it’s like to not be a part of the elite group, and the struggles such people have to go through to get a full university education,” McCloskey said. “That empathy plays a big role in undergraduate teaching. That really shines through.”

The caring and empathy that Chung carries with her in her teaching is a common thread through everything she does. It is also the basis of the profound influence on the students she teaches and mentors.

Her approach as a teacher is not one of molding students in her image, but of encouraging exploration and the development of analytical problem-solving skills. As another former student said, “She has a real knack for training independence.” 

Wagers explained the admiration he has for her teaching style.

“It’s much more inquiry-based,” said Wagers. “Her courses are all about solving problems. I think that’s just deeply satisfying to her. It’s helped her live a good life, and I think she wants to share that with others.”

Sandra Chung’s induction to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is the product of her unique ability to see value in people and places otherwise neglected. Jim McCloskey spoke about the outlook that informs Sandra’s research and teaching.

“Everyone’s experience matters,” McCloskey said. “Nobody should be overlooked. Everybody should be given the same access to shape the world.”