Re-learning your mother tongue in Korea

Read this post from Jason Strother who lives in Seoul. Or listen to the podcast above, which also includes a conversation with Korean-American Heidi Shin who recently made a trip back to Korea with her mom. Both found that they were speaking an antiquated form of the language.

Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception.

South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors.

“I had a very strong North Korean accent,” says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.”

Lee says South Koreans would have looked down on him if he’d told the truth. “I wouldn’t have made any friends,” he says. So Lee, like many of the 28,000 other defectors in South Korea, tried to pick up the local accent in a hurry.

Looking up the word for ice cream on the Univoca app (Photo: Jason Strother)

Looking up the word for ice cream on the Univoca app (Photo: Jason Strother)

But accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English.

“There’s been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a refugee support group in Seoul.

Now some South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap.

Smartphone App

One way is with a new smartphone app called Univoca, short for “unification vocabulary.” It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and get a North Korean translation. There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza — or an explanation of some dating terminology.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

“To create the program’s word bank, we first showed a typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words,” says “Jang Jong-chul of Cheil Worldwide, the firm that created the free app.

The developers also consulted older and highly educated defectors who helped with the South-to-North translations. Univoca’s open-source database has about 3,600 words so far.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology.

Testing the App

Upon first hearing about the new app, defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical about its proficiency. So he gave it a test run around a Seoul shopping plaza, where borrowed English words are everywhere.

With smartphone in hand, Lee walked past several stores, cafes and restaurants, all with signboards or advertisements featuring words he says would have made no sense to him back when he first defected.

The results were hit-and-miss. He stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and typed “ice cream” into his phone, but what appears on the screen didn’t seem right. The program suggested the word “aureum-bolsong-ee,” which literally means an icy frosting.

“We didn’t use this word when I was in North Korea,” he said. “We just say ‘ice cream’ or ‘ice kay-ke,'” the Korean way of pronouncing “cake.” Apparently North Korea isn’t so good at keeping English words out after all.

But after entering the word “doughnut,” Lee brightened up. “This is correct,” he said. “In North Korean, we say ‘ka-rak-ji-bang’ for doughnuts,” which translates as “ring bread.” We asked an illustrator to draw some of the more interesting translations for us. You can check those out in this related story.

After testing out the app in a few more locations, Univoca won over Lee. All the app’s functions are “really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here,” he said.

Unified Korean Dictionary

Smartphones aside, there’s a more traditional method Korean linguists are using to confront the North-South language divide.

Han Yong-woo is a South Korean lexicographer who, for the past several years, has been assembling the first unified Korean dictionary. His researchers are meeting with their North Korean counterparts this month in China to identify and translate uncommon words from each side of the peninsula.

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy  Han Yong-woo)

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy Han Yong-woo)


Some South Koreans regard the North Korean vernacular as more “pure” because of its perceived lack of foreign loan words. But Han disagrees, noting there’s no such thing as a pure language.

“All languages are living and growing, including North Korean,” he says. “Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese.”

For instance, Han says, the word “tractor” made its way from English to North Korea via their former Soviet neighbors.

Political tensions are getting in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years. And even if no political unification seems likely, he’s optimistic the dictionary might help unify the peninsula linguistically instead.


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Minnesota’s Umlautgate

The post comes from my Big Show pal David Leveille.

The Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a quirky executive order on Wednesday concerning the spelling of the name of the small Minnesota city of Lindström (population, 4,442).

Somehow, it seems when highway crews last updated the road signs leading into town, they removed those little twin dots that hover over the O. Lindström became Lindstrom. The transportation department defended the decision, citing federal policy that highway signs include only letters in a standard alphabet.

The omission wasn’t much noticed, though, until a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter spotted it. Soon enough, many of the town’s Swedish American residents were up in arms. They wanted the dots restored to reflect their heritage.

Keep in mind that the city of Lindström is nicknamed America’s Little Sweden. Many locals speak Swedish when buying Scandanavian donuts at the local Swedish bakery. A sign near the city center reads “Välkommen till Lindström.”

So on Wednesday, the governor predictably set things right by ordering the umlaut to be put back on the green highway signs that welcome tourists. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Dayton said. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström, and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”

“Underbar, and that means wonderful!” said local historian and tour guide Sally Barott reacting to the governor’s order. “We are ecstatic he’s making the umlauts come back.”

Barott says the dots affect the pronunciation and, more importantly, express the region’s cultural history and link to Swedish immigrants. “It’s important,” she says. “We have the old and the new. The blend is happening all over America, but I believe being able to retain our history and cultural ways, and to recognize and be traditional, honors the way we were taught and the way it was meant to me.”

Barott regularly escorts tourists around the city that was founded by Swedish immigrants back around 1850. One of her favorite stops is the Lindstrom Bakery where she orders Swedish glazed donuts and Swedish gingersnaps, called pepparkakor.

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use  an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)


Those gingersnaps have likely just come out of the oven, thanks to baker Bernie Coulombe, the woman behind the counter.

“This is a Swedish town. It has always been known for the Swedish settlers who first came here. So it is important to our customers and people who live here,” she explains. She says the town proudly shows off its heritage to tourists with a statue of Karl Oskar (a character in Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish emigration to the United States) that honors the early Swedish immigrants. There’s also an old water tower that’s in the shape of a coffee pot and a small Lutheran church that’s “strictly Swedish.”

But Lindstrom isn’t just hanging onto the past. “This is the way we were brought up, this is our Swedish inheritance, and you’ve got to keep your inheritance going,” says Coulombe.

This case of what might be called Lindstrom’s “umlautgate” is on the radar of The World’s language editor Patrick Cox. “Generally speaking English is thought of as the language where diacritics go to die.” All of the accents and the dots usually disappear, he says.

“America is the place where when you come to America, you sort of drop your clothes from the Old World and you embrace the New World. Names, surnames get changed, also the names of towns and cities get changed, and generally speaking the accents go.” But keep in mind, he says, “there are no rules in the English language right? I mean nobody’s going to stop the governor of Minnesota from saying ‘throw in some Cyrillic letters if you want to do that.’ He has every right to issue a decree like this.”

Strictly speaking, the Swedish ö does not use an umlaut. It is considered a separative letter in the Swedish alphabet. The umlauted o is a German thing.

But if you want to learn more about the linguistic difference between Lindstrom and Lindström, or the distinction between an umlaut (which has its origin in German) versus the happy twin dots that show up in Swedish words, and hear why rock bands ranging from Blue Öyster Cult to a Ukrainian band named Flëur like to play with umlauts, then you really must listen to Patrick’s podcast, The World in Wörds.


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The play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated was both British and American

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Get ready to hear this tired joke a few times: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

April marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The president who won the American Civil War and abolished slavery has rarely left public discourse since then, but the play he was watching when he was killed has largely vanished. You could say it died, along with the famous guy who was watching it.

But this year, “Our American Cousin” is back.

There are several current revivals of the play, including one in Britain — the first production there in more than a century. And that’s significant because it’s a British play. Sort of.

“It was originally written to have the English laughing at Americanisms,” says Lydia Parker, director of the new production of “Our American Cousin” at the Finborough Theatre in London. “Then it became very popular in America.”

Solomon Mousley,  Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre's production of  "Our American Cousin," by Tom Taylor.

Solomon Mousley, Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre’s production of “Our American Cousin,” by Tom Taylor.

Parker told the BBC that the play started life as a melodrama with a few laughs, mainly at the expense of a naïve but earnest American character. But later, as Broadway beckoned, the play was rewritten as a comedy in which Brits became the objects of mockery.

The play’s 1858 run in New York lasted five months, which was almost unprecedented at the time. It was still going strong in other cities, including Washington, DC. That’s where Lincoln saw it in 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War.

The plot, such as it is, deals with an English family living in the countryside. They receive a visit from a long-lost American relative by the name of Asa Trenchard, who doesn’t shower and uses words like “skedaddle” and “sockdologizing.” British audiences viewed him as coarse; American audiences warmed to his honesty.

“It’s a silly play, entirely predictable,” says Adam Smith, a Lincoln historian at University College, London. Nonetheless, he found the London revival “really fun.”

For one thing, audiences get the chance to witness what made people laugh 150 years ago. One especially pompous English character tickled the American funny bone: Lord Dundreary. Smith says Dundreary is a “ridiculously stupid” caricature of a man, “with a lisp … and great big sideburns.”

All the additional laughs contained in the American version became helpful props for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. As an actor, he was familiar with the play and knew when the audience would be laughing the most — and that’s when he pulled the trigger. The laughter covered up the cries of Mrs Lincoln.

“It’s that wrench from hilarity to astonished agony that’s incredible,” Smith says. “Has there ever been a leader assassinated while 1,500 of his fans were in fits of hysterical laughter?”

That’s also the biggest problem confronting today’s producers of the play. Most audiences know the scene, and anticipate its arrival with a mix of curiosity and dread. It’s difficult to focus on the comedy.

Smith applauds the Finborough Theatre’s approach to the scene: A female character lets out a farcical scream, just at the moment when Mrs Lincoln was said to have screamed after her husband was shot.

But however you play it, it’s awkward.

The London production of “Our American Cousin” is now sold out through its last performance on April 14. That’s the anniversary of the play’s most famous performance.


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2017 will be a big year for Martin Luther, father of the German language

We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.

Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)


“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”

Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.

“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.

Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”

“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”


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Is China in the midst of a second golden age of poetry?

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit.  (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit. (Photo: Heather Inwood)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together.

Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work.

Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.”

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the "Poem For You" recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the “Poem For You” recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do.

“Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty. That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, new poetry is dead in China,’” poet Ming Di says. She loves the ancient poets, but feels the strict classical forms they pioneered tended to dead end after, you know, a few hundred years.

“Poets in the Tang Dynasty already did their best. And we in 21st Century have to do something new — either we bring something new to the old form or go our own way.”

And they are. Modern Chinese poets are exploring radical new terrain when it comes to form, sentence structure, and perhaps most importantly, subject matter. At the far end of this spectrum, according to professor Heather Inwood, is the “School of Rubbish.” (Although, she says, “you can also translate it as the ‘Trash School,’ or something like that.”)

vvvInwood teaches Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester in England and is the author of “Verse Going Viral,” a book about China’s new media scenes. “The ‘School of Rubbish’ became famous for writing poems about, basically, bodily excretions,” she explains. “Their goal was to go one meter lower than the ‘lower body’ — that was the name of an earlier poetry group around the turn of the millennium that wrote about sex. So they were thinking, ‘If we can’t write about sex because that’s already been done, what can we write about that will open people’s eyes to new ways of thinking about poetry?’”

And the answer was: Poems with a toilet theme. Of course, not everyone is convinced this is a hallmark of literary progress.

“People have argued … modern or contemporary Chinese poetry has not completely found its own legitimacy,” says Yibing Huang. “Some people say, ‘Is this a poem?’ You know, ‘This morning, I woke up. I drank a cup of coffee… Life sucks.’ People say that’s not a poem because it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t fit a certain expectation.”

Yet, social media may be turning the tide. This past January, WeChat, a messaging and social networking app, produced an unlikely media darling whose poems don’t rhyme and don’t avoid the fact that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. Yu Xiuhua had two books come out in one week and sell out overnight — 15,000 copies.

In addition to being a poet, Yu is also a farmer from a rural village who was born with cerebral palsy. As Ming Di points out, “Some people even consider her [to be the] Emily Dickinson in China.’”

Ming has translated some of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry, including her most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.”

    To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?

    Two bodies collide — the force, the flower opened by the force,

    and the virtual Spring brought by the flower — nothing more than this,

    and this we mistake as life restarting.

    In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes

    erupt, rivers run dry,

    political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,

    elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.

    I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.

    I press many nights into one morning to sleep with you.

    I run across many of me and many of me run into one to sleep with you.

    Of course I can be misguided by butterflies

    and mistake praise as Spring,

    and a village similar to Hengdian as home.

    But all these are absolute

    reasons that I spend a night with you.

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that.

Recently a popular Beijing anchor read “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” one of Yibing Huang’s poems on WeChat. Yibing is thrilled about the exposure the Internet brings him. But what is this all this doing to Chinese poetry?

“In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.”

Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

The Internet isn’t going to kill poetry, people deciding it’s not worth that effort will. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China anytime soon.


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Utah’s language gamble

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Better yet, listen to the podcast above.

Several years ago, Utah decided to start teaching foreign languages in public schools — beginning in the first grade.

Utah probably isn’t the first place you’d think would be at the forefront of language education in the United States. When it comes to per-student spending in public schools, Utah comes in dead last among all 50 states. What’s more, Utah passed an “English Only” law 15 years ago, declaring English to be the state’s sole official language.

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

So what accounts for this language push? One man: Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson.

Stephenson has served in the Utah legislature for more than 22 years. He calls himself a “government watchdog” and idolizes Ronald Reagan. He’s even got a page dedicated to the past president on his website. Safe to say, the senator is wary of the government messing in his business.

But during a 2008 trip to China, where the government messes in everyone’s business, Stephenson had what he describes as an “epiphany.” He met many Chinese students who spoke with him in fluent English. They were bright, eager and articulate.

“On the plane ride home, I was worried about America’s future,” Stephenson says. “I was excited for the Chinese and their rising nation, but I wondered what could I do as a policymaker to assist in helping the United States connect to these rising nations?”

Stephenson promptly introduced a bill to fund the teaching of critical languages, like Mandarin, in Utah’s public schools.

His fellow policy makers weren’t exactly on board at first.

“Some legislators were saying you can’t expect children to learn such a complicated language as Chinese,” he remembers. “And I reminded them that there are hundreds are millions of children in China who are learning it quite well. They do well, why can’t our children? Are our children’s brains wired differently than a Chinese person’s brain? I don’t think so.”

Stephenson also argued that a multilingual Utah would be good for the state’s economic future: A state full of fluent Chinese speakers is a state open for business.

His bill passed.

It was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and later served as the American ambassador to China. Now, seven years after Stephenson’s airborne epiphany, there are intensive language programs at 118 schools in Utah, and not just in Mandarin. The program also teaches Spanish, Portuguese, French and German, and the state intends to keep growing the list.

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Tiari Puriri is one of the young Utahans learning Mandarin. Now a second-grader, she started learning the language in first grade at her school in Santa Clara. It’s a small town in southern Utah more than two hours away from Las Vegas, the closest big city. Think arid, desert landscape, red rock formations and not too many Chinese speakers.

“This is what she brought home yesterday,” says her mom, Kristina, who shows off her daughter’s math homework. There’s not a word of English on the page, just Chinese characters and some numerals. “If she hadn’t put that there, and there weren’t pluses and equals, I don’t think that I would know that this is math.”

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Learning math in Chinese is a part of Utah’s 50/50 dual language immersion model. Yes, it’s a horrible, jargon-y sounding phrase, but it basically means that half the school day and half the subjects, like math, are taught in the target foreign language and the other half in English.

When Kristina and I went to pick up Tiari from school, she was a bit shy about speaking Chinese on tape. But she readily sang a “clean-up” song in Chinese.

She and her class learned it from Xiao Fung, Tiari’s second-grade Chinese teacher. She came to this tiny Utah town from Chongqing, a city of 29 million people, thanks to a teaching exchange program funded by the Chinese government. That’s part of the way Utah can afford this program.

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she'll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she’ll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

But not all of the parents at Santa Clara Elementary were thrilled when they heard a teacher from China was coming to the school — or that Chinese was going to be taught at all.

“My initial thoughts were like ‘Oh my gosh, there’s already so much our kids have to do,'” says Summer Lang, who has two kids at the school. “I push hard on my kids. I expect a lot, but I just think there’s a fine line. There’s a fine line of pushing. Too much, too hard, too young.”

Lang and several other parents started a petition against the program. She wasn’t alone in questioning the importance of learning another language in a world in which so many people speak English.

“A lot of countries are fluent in English too, but that’s because everybody comes here,” Lang argues. “How are we to pick one place where we’re going to become fluent as a second language? English is kind of the universal. Everybody speaks it.”

She’s also one of Kristina Puriri’s very best friends, but things got a little tense between them. “It kind of got ugly there for a while,” Lang admits.

Ultimately, things cooled down. The principal reassured parents that Chinese immersion was optional, and Lang chose not to enroll her children. Still, it’s a source of sensitivity.

“I went to Santa Clara Elementary, and we’ve chosen to stay here and raise our family here because of the tradition,” Lang says. “Change is hard whether it’s positive [or] negative.”

Change is hard, but Utah just might be in a unique position to pilot this kind of program. Language learning isn’t such a wild notion in this very Mormon state: For generations, Mormon missionaries have fanned out across the world, and stop in Utah first to learn the language of the place where they’ll serve.

Kristina’s husband, Michael, actually jokes about the “Mormon question.” “You told her why we’re doing this, for the church?” Michael Puriri asks his wife.

The Puriris are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In fact, Kristina learned Portuguese on her own mission in Portugal.

“There [are] 88,000 missionaries out in the world today, but if we open up China with all those people, we’re going to need, like, another million missionaries,” Michael chides his wife. “So we figure with all these kids here learning Chinese…”

“But that’s not why we’re doing it,” Kristina says. Most Mormons don’t think this way, Kristina tells me over and over. And she says she’s most excited about the little ways in which learning Chinese will allow her daughter to connect with others right here in the US.

“I’m excited for the future when we can go to a Chinese restaurant or see a Chinese tour bus at Disneyland and she can go back and forth and back and forth,” she says.

Or maybe she’ll one day lead that Chinese tour bus through the national parks of Utah. That’s what State Senator Stephenson likes to envision: connecting his landlocked state of Utah to the rest of the world.

“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” he says. “As many nations are rearing children with bi- and trilingual abilities, we need to step it up because we’re in a world competitive arena.”

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Sanskrit isn’t just an ancient, scholarly language, it’s also a living tongue caught up in Indian politics

The cast of the Sanskrit play, "The Cleverness of the Thief." Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white.  (Photo: Corey Pein)

The cast of the Sanskrit play, “The Cleverness of the Thief.” Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white. (Photo: Corey Pein)

Here’s a post from Patricia Sauthoff. The podcast above is even better.

Sanskrit has been lingering at the edges of Western culture for a while now. It’s an obscure language that not many people know, but a lot of people know about.

I started studying Sanskrit as a written language a few years ago. Back then, when I told people about it, they assumed I was a big “White Album”-era Beatles fan or into Transcendental Meditation. Now they just assume I spend a lot of time doing yoga.

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

I’m actually a Ph.D. candidate at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I study Sanskrit so I can do research and read ancient texts, not order lunch or hail a cab. But last year my studies took a turn for the practical when I decided to take a conversational Sanskrit course over the summer.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, but it’s actually pretty easy to hear it out in the world — if you know where to look. India’s 2001 census counted 14,000 Indians who claimed it as their mother tongue. There are Sanskrit language newscasts; I’ve seen Shakespeare and other plays performed in Sanskrit here in London; and there is a community of language learners and teachers from around the world who gather on Twitter to share their knowledge, ask for help, and meet others interested in communicating in Sanskrit. Some are in India, some are part of the Indian diaspora, and some — like me — are Westerners interested in learning something more about the language and culture of South Asia.

And it does look like interest in Sanskrit is growing. The study of Sanskrit is certainly surging in popularity, both in India and in the West. Students at Princeton University recently launched a petition to get Sanskrit back into the curriculum. And at my own school, the second-year Sanskrit course grew to 20 this year, up from just two the year before.

It turns out spending a month speaking Sanskrit day-in and day-out is pretty surreal. Instead of reading philosophy books, I learned how to say things like telephone — dūrabhāṣā — and bicycle — dvicakrikā. It reminds me that Sanskrit isn’t just a language of dusty books. And as anyone who has ever namaste-d knows, it’s a language that’s really fun to say out loud — or even to sing.

There were 20 of us in the class, learning, speaking and singing six days a week for four weeks. Several of my classmates were Indians living in Europe. Some were graduate students like myself, and others were professionals taking a break from work. There was even a Buddhist monk who out-chanted us all.

Much like any other intensive language course, we were expected to communicate only in Sanskrit. But where other immersion classes are for beginners, most of my classmates had years of experience reading the language. Of course, slowly translating a written work and rapid-fire conversation are completely different. Those who spoke Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati found the spoken Sanskrit a little more familiar than those of us who just read.

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

We learned to speak through traditional methods like singing and chanting, but also by discussing everyday things. We learned lines of ancient poetry and had a Skype chat in Sanskrit with a professor in Australia.

The students in my class were aware that the revival of Sanskrit is contentious. It’s sometimes tied with the rise of Hindu nationalism. Events like the newly introduced Sanskrit Week are seen as privileging one language and culture over others. India’s second largest religion, Islam, does not have historical ties to Sanskrit. Even among Hindus, the country’s largest religious group, Sanskrit learning has historically been something for only the privileged castes. In the southern part of the country, languages such as Tamil developed simultaneously but separately from Sanskrit.

But in the classroom, we didn’t discuss the current debates or the history of the language. Instead, we practiced for an upcoming performance of songs and a play for friends, family and the Indian ambassador to Germany.

Most of us study Sanskrit in order to read it, and learning to speak it was a challenge. My vocabulary includes a lot of technical philosophical terms that aren’t easy to translate into English, but it now also includes some useful everyday ones, too. I’m used to being able to slowly read complex books, but when it comes to quickly answering a basic question like kuśalam asti vā — “How are you?” — I freeze.

After a month of class, I realized Sanskrit isn’t about self-expression for me. It’s about reading the ideas of the past. I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it as a living language, but I’m more comfortable treating it as a dead one.

Check out the podcast (above or on iTunes) to hear about Sanskrit’s near-perfect alphabet from translator Terence Coe.

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