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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.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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Here’s a guest post from Ruth Morris in Shanghai.
The inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open kicks off with 100 fidgety students in a small auditorium. Volunteers wear black t-shirts with English lettering that say: “Go back and read more.”
Then the first topic — or motion — appears on a screen. It reads: “This house regrets the ‘celebritization’ of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”
As soon as they find out what they’re debating, a couple of the students scramble to figure out what exactly the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is. It was popularized on Facebook, which is blocked in China, although it did spread to Chinese social media. The students rush to a judge with questions and she fills them in.Education experts say Chinese authorities are waking up to the notion that Chinese students need to be independent thinkers if they want to produce their own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And they say debate is one way to get there.
English-language British Parliamentary debate is gaining popularity here, especially among top students gunning for foreign universities.
“We want to use debate as a medium to give students education and enlightenment,” said Zheng Bo, the tournament’s chief adjudicator and a promoter of British Parliamentary debate in China. He says China’s education system is grounded in Confucian thinking, which poses a challenge.
“Teachers are given absolute authority and students just listen and recite, and remember,” Zheng Bo says. “So that created a lot of students that are really good at doing maths and physics … where there is a given answer. But when it comes to something without a standard answer … that’s creating a lot of trouble, because they are not familiar with this kind of practice.“
Debate is the perfect educational supplement, he says. It trains students to think critically.
British Parliamentary debate’s oppositional style might seem incongruous in China, since it divides teams into two sides — the government and the opposition — while China operates as a single-party state. Beijing also scrubs dissent from the Internet and constantly stresses harmony and social stability.
So motions tend not to veer into highly sensitive areas, like Tibetan independence, but they still range widely. Government policies are not off the table.
Participant Steve Chou says debate taught him to step back from political flashpoints and take a more reasoned approach. For example, China’s emotionally charged maritime dispute with Japan.China’s primary education “taught you to love your country, to be patriotic,” Chou says. “But through debate, we see that even though you do not praise your country does not necessarily mean you are not patriotic.”
Another debater goes by the English name Sloan. She believes that British Parliamentary debates will keep growing in China.
“It kind of has this life-long influence on you,” she says. “This kind of critical thinking [is] always with you and influences the people around you.”
Participants also say they consider debating in English to be easier than in Chinese. In English-language debates, you can be simpler and more direct, they say. On the other hand, Chinese debates tend to have really abstract topics, like “Is IQ more important that EQ?”
The tournament concludes with a highly controversial motion to prosecute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for hate crimes against Palestinians. One of the winners is from Hong Kong, where many residents are currently demanding greater democracy from Beijing. That subject didn’t come up in the debates.
Before the students leave, Zheng Bo offers a final critique. He says debaters omitted concrete examples to support their arguments.
He tells them, “Go back and read more.”
The most common is beremenaya (Беременная). Figuratively, it means pregnant. But the literal meaning is quite different.
“It has this kind of almost quasi-religious meaning of burden, or punishment,” says Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard.
“You are carrying your burden.”
In other Slavic languages, some words for pregnant have the same root meaning of burden. Makes you wonder — how exactly do people in the Slavic world view pregnancy?
Different Meanings in Different Languages
And what are we to make of the words that describe pregnancy in the African nation of Malawi? Malawian journalist Yvonnie Sundu lists three words for pregnant in the Chichewa language — and all of them mean ill. There’s matenda, wodwala and, most dramatically, pakati, which means “between life and death.”
Linguistically, pregnancy seems to be seen in a more positive light in China. Among the many words in Chinese for pregnant is youxi (有喜), which Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li says is made up of two common characters. You (有)means “to have” and xi (喜) means “happy” or “happiness.” Put them together and they mean pregnant.
Russian, Chichewa and Chinese aren’t outliers. Translate pregnant into many other languages and you’ll get words that break down into all kinds of meanings.
The Spanish word for pregnant — embarazada — is often confused with the English word embarrassed. They may have different meanings today, but these two words come from the same root.
The word for pregnant in the Amazonian tribal language of Pirahã is koohiaaga, which means “stomach.” That may sound like a vague term for pregnant, but when the Pirahã say, “her stomach is big,” it means only one thing.
All these words and all these meanings seem rich with cultural information. When you think about it, it makes sense that the Chinese, with their Confucian values, would view pregnancy as a happy circumstance. Likewise, it’s not surprising that Russians, with all the suffering in their society, would view pregnancy as a burden. And in a poor country like Malawi, where women may not get adequate prenatal care, you can see how pregnancy might be viewed as sickness.
It stands to reason that we should mine these words for clues about the behavior and views of the people who use them. Right?
Wrong, says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter.
“It’s really tempting to think that the different words that we often use have something to do with the culture that a language corresponds to,” says McWhorter. “But, actually, there’s a lot less to ideas like that than we’d like to think.”
Why? Consider again the word in question: pregnant.
Look up pregnant in an English dictionary and you’ll see that it comes from a Latin word that means something like “before birth.”
Over time, the word has picked up other meanings. It can refer, for example, to something that’s filled with significance or emotion — for instance, a pregnant pause.
It’s not clear where these other meanings came from. One theory is that a French word that sounded a bit like pregnant became confused with the English word, and so, over time, pregnant expanded its meaning. It’s a pretty common way for a word to evolve — not in a planned fashion, just randomly.
When we say pregnant, or any other word, says McWhorter, we can’t possibly think of all of its nuances, let alone its original root meaning.
“To speak is to use words and expressions in idiomatic ways that float away from their literal meanings,” he says. “Reading meaning into the words and expressions that we mouth is often a very dangerous proposition.”
It’s dangerous, he says, because we might draw completely false conclusions about a group of people. Are the Chinese, for example, really happier about pregnancy than others? Not in recent decades; China’s one-child policy must have resulted in millions of unhappy pregnancies.
How Language Relates to Thought
So, what is the connection between how you speak and how you think?
“Language and thought don’t correspond the way we might think they do when we look at it laid out all neatly on the page,” says McWhorter.
Over the years, linguists have gone back and forth on how much the language you speak affects how you think. Today, most linguists don’t believe that language affects thought all that much. But recently, a few studies on how we perceive the likes of cardinal directions and color have concluded that speech does sometimes shape thought.
McWhorter, though, is skeptical — so skeptical that he’s written a book called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.”
So what, if anything, runs through the minds of Chinese, Chichewa and Russian speakers when they use their words for pregnant?
Wenjing Li — again referring to the two Chinese characters, you meaning have and xi meaning happiness — says, “When we say youxi together, we always think … pregnant. We don’t think about what you means and what xi means separately.”
A Glimpse of History
So does that mean that we should always ignore the root or literal meanings of words? Words had to evolve out of some sort of meaning.
What about those Chichewa words for pregnant, all meaning sick? Chichewa speaker Yvonne Sundu guesses that the word pakati, meaning, literally, “between life and death,” once made a lot of sense.
“Most of the women who were pregnant ended up perhaps dying,” says Sundu. “So that’s the reason why our forefathers coined this word, pakati.”
Of course, given the random way that words often evolve, they’re not exactly the most reliable pieces of historical evidence. But, sometimes, they may offer a clue about cultural attitudes in the past.
Harvard’s Svetlana Boym thinks so. There’s the Russian word for pregnancy, beremenaya, with its literal meaning of “burden.”
She says that Russians, until quite recently, did think of pregnancy as a burden.
“Women in old Soviet times were not given painkillers,” says Boym. “There was an idea that you were supposed to suffer your burden as a woman, which I think is quite a horrifying idea.”
But medical practices evolve. So do cultural attitudes. In Russia today, the government is upgrading maternity hospitals and paying couples a cash bonus if they have more than one child. So, is pregnancy still a “burden?”
The word and its root meaning appear to be growing ever farther apart.
As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.
While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.
There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.
But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.
Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.
Government policy lags social desire
Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.
“I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.
China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.
“The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”
Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.
On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.
School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.
Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.
“I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”
For reasons that’ll soon become clear, I couldn’t help imagining that those little Chinese snacks we were eating were…alive. Now, some Asian food items really are alive when you put them in your mouth—but that’s a different story. The dishes we we’d ordered weren’t moving, except for the fact that I’d just viewed them in another form—walking, talking and fighting.
Here’s a taste of Goh and Woo’s creation, Dim Sum Warriors: “Their bravery and skill have inspired millions worldwide, while the mere mention of their names causes enemies to quiver like tofu.”
Dim Sum Warriors is a comic book that started as an iPad app. It started online, and now is out in book form, the reverse of most tech-savvy comic book series.
Goh and Woo created Dim Sum Warriors partly for their daughter, Kai Yen Goh. She’s learning to understand both English and Chinese by using the app.
“We felt especially because we were bringing up a daughter in America we wanted something that would represent her mixed-up cultural heritage,” says Goh.
On an iPad, you can read Dim Sum Warriors in English or in Chinese. Or, you can flip between the two languages. If you want to hear the audio, you tap a word balloon. If you hold your finger on the balloon, you get a translation—script and audio.
Nick Sousanis is a big fan of Dim Sum Warriors. He teaches a class at Columbia’s Teachers College on using comics in classrooms. He says the Dim Sum Warriors is that it makes clever use of some relatively new behaviour patterns.
“If you read the New York Times on the web and you want to know what a word means, you click on it,” says Sousanis. Dim Sum Warriors operates like that. “You can see the action you know what the characters are doing, you see the word. You can associate the word with what that action is. It just synergistically holds together.”
Kids seem to like it too. Third-grader Finn Myers, who lives in New York, says he’s read Dim Sum Warriors “at least” seven times.
“It’s like you’re doing two things at once but you don’t even know,” says Finn. “You’re learning the language and reading.”
Now, that’s something of dream for language teachers—distracting students with a strong narrative so they want to read on.
Of course, it may not work on all kids. But Finn’s teacher Kyla Huang says Dim Sum Warriors will be a valuable addition to many classrooms. Huang says Chinese teachers in the United States do more than teach. They’re “also authors” of teaching materials because there aren’t enough officially approved materials available in the US.
It helps that Dim Sum Warriors is an iPad app—iPads and other tablets are already a big hit in many schools
Yen Yen Woo tried out Dim sum Warriors on some other 3rd graders. She said they liked the idea of Chinese food items talking to each other. But something was missing.
“They all said ‘what about scallion pancakes…and spring rolls?’” says Woo. “They also said teachers should have them read it just before lunch because it’s going to make them very hungry.”
It’s true, you do get hungry. But you also want to read to learn how the likes of Crown Prince Roast Pork Bao fares in the face of the evil Colonel Quicky Noodle. (Woo and Goh describe him as a mixture of Robert Downey Jr and a mutant pot of instant ramen.)Colin Goh’s favorite character is the pompously-named Master Phoenix Claw, who’s actually nothing more than a chicken foot. But in dim sum menus, chicken feet are described as phoenix claws. “I always envisaged him as a sort of used car salesman,” says Goh. “He’s always trying to pull a fast one on everyone.”
There’s the blend again of Chinese and American culture. Who could be more American than a car salesman? What could be more Chinese than a menu item with an over-the-top name? Put them together and you get something new.
“A lot of the comics in the past have portrayed Asians in this stereotypical way, like you’re either dragon lady or the mysterious Zen master,” says Woo. “We really wanted our child to grow up being confident of her own culture and to see all these character as being part of the universe.”
And so in Dim Sum Warriors there is American-style teenage introspection, but also kung fu fights, albeit enacted by dumplings. Just the idea of a comic book is American, or at least not Chinese. Most Asian comic books are Japanese, though comic book scene in Taiwan is picking up pace.
It’s from Japan, too, that the idea of talking food comes. The Japanese have featured various personified food items in comics and cartoons for years. But with its breadth of characters, Dim Sum Warriors takes things a few wacky steps further.
Even though you can now read Dim Sum Warriors the old-fashioned way, you need to experience it as originally conceived, on an iPad, for the full effect.
To grasp the difference, Colin Goh casts his mind back to when he was teenager, obsessed with Japanese pop culture. He taught himself the language in a painstaking way, “by sitting there with manga and three dictionaries and trying to figure out what they were saying.” The iPad, he says, “enabled us to make the comic into what I would have wanted back when I was 15 years old.”
Another advantage is that apps debut in scores of countries—less of a distribution problem than books. So far, though, there are fewer Chinese using Dim Sum Warriors to learn English than the other way round. Woo and Goh hope to change that with a visit to China later this year.
They even have the idea of turning their fantasy into a stage musical—another American genre making inroads in China.
Here’s a previous post and podcast featuring Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. They talk about their role as editor of a dictionary of Singlish, the mashed-up street patois that all self-respecting Singaporeans use.
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In this pod, we get the lowdown from the Big Show’s Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on Ai Weiwei’s latest project—a punning re-take on Gangnam Style. Not surprisingly, Ai’s video has annoyed China’s authorities.
Also, a conversation with the Jeffrey Yang, translator of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s poems about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
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