Tag Archives: Education

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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A bilingual seal of approval for high school graduates

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Read this post from Monica Campbell. Or listen to the podcast above.

Let’s take a trip back to September 1995, when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was talking about education on the campaign trail. “If we want to ensure that all of our children had the same opportunities — yours, mine, everyone’s — in America, alternative language education should stop,” he said.

“Alternative education” was a code for bilingual education, and Dole was speaking at a time when states like California banned bilingual programs. The idea was that learning foreign languages was fine, but not to the detriment of being fully literate in English.

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California's bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California’s bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

But those days are fading — and fast. Just head to Hillsboro High School, near Portland, Oregon, and step into the Algebra 2 class. The concepts — open intervals, integers, logarithm rules — are already challenging for most students. Now learn them in Spanish.

From start to finish, teacher Moises Curiel instructs in that language, and the students plug away, asking questions and working through problems in groups.

Learning in another language isn’t a problem, because the students have two things in common: They all know English, and they’ve studied in Spanish for years. Many of the students here either grew up speaking Spanish with their families, or want to speak Spanish themsevles, like Peter Kuskie. He’s a sophomore who grew up speaking only English.

Yet Kuskie’s Spanish is good — really good — because he spends most of his school days moving between classes instructed in both languages.

And while dual-language learning been around for years in the US, what’s new is what Kuskie and many of his classmates will get on their diplomas when they graduate: an embossed seal honoring their bilingualism.

The effort started in California, spearheaded by a statewide coalition called Californians Together, and is now spreading to states like Illinois, New York and Florida. Along with Spanish, there are bilingual diploma seals offered for Mandarin, Vietnamese and other languages

“What we … have been about, really, was to try and change people’s perspectives as well as their feelings about bilingualism,” says Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together.

Arturo Lomeli, Hillsboro High’s principal, hopes the seal will have more than symbolic value. “It’s so demanding, it’s so rigorous,” Lomeli says. “They’re walking in and they’re processing English, Spanish and math and inputting in Spanish what they’re hearing — processing in English, outputting in Spanish.”

Lomeli also points to how some — but not all — studies show that bilingualism slows the brain from aging. Students learning another language are also less distracted, and even earn higher salaries over time.

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students' bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students’ bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Spiegel-Coleman says the United States faces real risks if it continues to be a monolingual culture.

“There are issues of national security,” she says. “You’ve heard from the Department of Defense over and over again that they are lacking professionals who can deal and communicate and negotiate in countries across the world in the language of that country. Going through an interpreter, you lose something.”

But while bilingualism is strengthening in some parts of the US, foreign language instruction is dropping nationwide. One reason is that the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, enacted 12 years ago, stressed traditional subjects.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in some parts of the country also doesn’t help. SEALS_language

Principal Lomeli says he can’t control the political rhetoric, but insists “we need to catch up with the rest of the world. We need to prepare students for a global society, and we haven’t been doing that.”

Some students aren’t worried about issues that are quite that big. For them, mastering another language is a personal matter. Maria Regalado, a junior whose parents are Mexican says, “I’ve had Spanish since I was born. So, I just get to keep it and not let it go, you know?”

She says now she can visit Mexico and “really talk” with her family, and she thinks her improved Spanish will also help her career. She wants to study criminal justice and become a police officer, and she knows some Latino families in the area can’t speak English and can feel distanced from law enforcement. She’s looking forward to bridging that gap.

Kuskie, her classmate, says it was his mom who convinced him to try and become bilingual. She was turned down for a job at a job at health clinic in Hillsboro, an area flush with new immigrants.

“She knows the people there and then they said, ‘Well, you need to learn to speak Spanish.’ So that’s why she couldn’t do that. So she’s been trying to learn Spanish, too,” he says.

Not everyone at the school is on the bilingual track. Kuskie says his friends who aren’t in the program ask him why he takes classes like Algebra 2 in Spanish, and he does acknowledge that it is “a little bit” harder.

But he’s up for the challenge, he say. And for students like Kuskie and Regalado, whose goal is real bilingualism, they’ll have a seal on their diploma to prove that come graduation day.


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Parliamentary-style debates take off in China — even if some topics are off limits

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)


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.

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

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.

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

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.”


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How to make a living as a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Hint: Skype

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Emily Files.

When Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia was younger, he considered emigrating from Guatemala to the United States.

“Because I had heard in United States, there was gold,” he says.

He knew he’d need to travel illegally, crossing through Mexico, so he decided against the journey. Instead, he got a job teaching Spanish at a local language school, where he earned about $2 an hour. He continued teaching at local schools for more than 20 years.

Now 49, Tabin Garcia has found a way to make a much better living without leaving his own home. He teaches Spanish lessons on Skype, mostly to American and Canadian students. He makes $10 per hour, five times what he made at the local schools.

Erin O’Reilly, a veteran language teacher based in California, teaches in traditional classrooms and online. She’s seen online language lessons take off globally in the past three years. She says it co-incides with growing Internet access in developing countries.

“This is transformational for language learners who are trying to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting,” O’Reilly says.

But she doesn’t think classroom teaching will die out any time soon. She says language learners often need the structure and motivation that comes with in-person lessons.

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

For Tabin Garcia, Skype lessons have been so profitable that he quit his job at the language school last month. He’s been able to buy luxuries he and his wife could not previously afford, like a washing machine. His dog, Manchas, used to sleep on a cardboard box. Tabin Garcia recently bought him a cushy dog bed.

On a recent Thursday evening, Tabin Garcia had a one-hour Skype lesson with student Laura Knotts, who lives in Chicago. They made small talk about weather and their families and Tabin Garcia corrected her mistakes.

Knotts is one of a dozen students Tabin Garcia teaches each week. He’s brought his wife and sister into the business as well. The two women now have a few of their own students.

Tabin Garcia’s weekly income of about $150 to $200 supports not only himself and his wife, but his extended family. He says his 7-year-old niece used to be malnourished and became sick. Her parents didn’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.

“She would have died,” Tabin Garcia said. “Her condition was very, very bad.”

He used his Skype earnings to pay for her medicine and food. She’s doing better now.

There are some roadblocks to teaching via Skype. For one, an Internet connection is expensive, as is the laptop he uses. Some people don’t know how to use Skype. Tabin Garcia has trained a few friends and family. And, of course, there are always technical glitches. But Tabin Garcia has been able to keep his independent business going despite those problems.

Talking to students in different countries has made him more interested in traveling outside of Guatemala, something he’s never done before.

“I would like to visit the country where students live,” he said. “I would like to visit Chicago. I would like to visit Canada. Winter Canada, for seeing the snow.”


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Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the ‘common tongue’

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island's bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island’s bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

It has four tones, strange ‘measure words’ and thousands of characters to memorize. So for English-speakers, Mandarin can be an especially difficult language to tackle.

But here’s some more bad news. Even if you become fluent, you may not be able to communicate with nearly a third of the people living in China.

State media recently reported that more than 400 million Chinese are unable to speak Mandarin—the national language—while millions more speak it poorly.

Instead, they rely on regional dialects—some call them separate languages—that are so far apart, they’re mutually unintelligible. Even Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, spoke with such a pronounced regional accent that many Chinese had a hard time understanding him.

A long trip, linguistically

Today, non-Mandarin speakers tend to be older Chinese from rural areas, like the island of Chongming. It’s just 45 minutes by bus from the center of Shanghai, but linguistically it’s a much longer trip.

“Like eating, eating the dinner. In Mandarin we call it ‘chi fan,’ but in Chongming language we call it ‘chibie’,” said Gu Hangyu, a student from Chongming.

Gu’s grandmother, Wang Yufang, is one of the millions of Chinese who doesn’t speak Mandarin. As a farmer, her life has been hard. Corncobs fuel her stove, and handpicked cotton fills her comforter. In winter, she heats her home with the energy from a car battery.

With her grandson translating, Wang said she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and has no need to. All her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, and so do the vegetable vendors in the market.

But Gu is less matter-of-fact. He’s worried his native dialect might fade. He also noted that some city dwellers look down on new arrivals if they speak with thick regional accents.

“I have a special feeling towards my native language,” he said. “I’m proud of Chongming. It’s a beautiful town. The people are friendly… the air is fresh, the water is clean.”

Dialects or Languages?

You Ruijie, a linguist at Fudan University, said dialects spoken widely in commercial hubs like Shanghai will likely survive for generations. Others are on their way out.

“I think some dialects, especially the small dialects, could disappear in the near future,” he said.

It’s a testament to today’s mobility and migration in China that You’s family speaks four dialects. Yet his son and his parents don’t have a single dialect in common. It’s a linguistic leap that’s not uncommon here.

You says for all intents and purposes, China’s 10 or so dialect groups should be treated as completely separate languages. He says: think of the difference between Italian and Spanish. At the same time, many Chinese minorities have their own languages, like Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan.

This adds another degree of complexity, especially for visitors. If you want to buy a necklace in Xinjiang in the west, or a cellphone in parts of Southern China, you might get further in English than in Mandarin.

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Wang Yufang and her grandson, Gu Hangyu, at her home on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. Gu says when he has a family, he'd like his son or daughter to speak his native Chongming dialect. Many young Chinese do not speak their grandparents' dialects.

On Chongming Island, Gu’s grandmother says she has no plans to take up Mandarin herself.

“She says it’s hard for older people like her to study Mandarin. It’s useless for them. But it’s useful for young people like me,” Gu said.

At 68, she added, she’s confident the Chongming dialect will outlast her. And if it is lost and she’s still alive, at that time, she said, “I will leave the world.”

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Straight outta ESL class: learning English by learning slang

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Josie Huang

Donald Chung stood in front of his classmates at the UCLA Extension school and started to throw a fit — well, as much as the mild–mannered student from Taiwan could muster.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to pull,” Chung said. “The guy’s a total flake!”

His friend Jiu Hua Zhang chimed in: “You said it!”

The students had spent a good portion of the class practicing these expressions as part of their “street talk” course. In many foreign countries, English classes start as early as pre-school. But thousands of students still come to the US to get what they can’t get back home: the idioms, the catchphrases — the slang.

“My conversation is more academic, or more like an essay,” Zhang said. “I need to be more, like, American.”

She and Chung enrolled less than half a year ago at UCLA Extension’s American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering street talk classes. Zhang wants to get all of the jokes on her favorite American sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Chung would like to catch what commentators are saying during NBA games.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand what they’re talking about because they use some vocabulary I can’t understand,” he said, sounding frustrated.

Hip-hop as a second language

There’s a lot to learn. But because slang is constantly evolving, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to it. Texts get dated faster than you can say YOLO.

So teachers are often left to find their own method of teaching American lingo, in ways creative and resourceful.

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. So he figured his students at UC-Davis might, too.

He crafted lesson plans around 1990s hip-hop. N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” has come in handy teaching reductions in English — for example, how “out of” gets shortened.

“They’re saying ‘straight out of Compton,’” Mayeux said. “But I think a lot of people, especially Americans, we pronounce it ‘outta.’”

Mayex shares his lessons with students outside of his Hip-hop as a Second Language class through his website eslhiphop.com.

He said some educators might frown on what he’s teaching. But, as someone who’s studied linguistics, he believes “you have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid.”

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using,” Mayeux said.

Fitting in

Mayeux also uses the music to take the opportunity to teach about hip-hop culture, and give the students some context for what it is like to grow up in America.

He said that he has many close friends from other countries, and a lack of understanding about pop culture can leave them feeling left out.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said. “They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo.”

Judy Tanka, who teaches English at the American Language Center, agreed.

”You may understand every word of the lecture,” Tanka said. “But when you have to go to your study group or you have to call a classmate, slang is going to be necessary.”

Tanka tries to incorporate slang into her everyday conversation with her students. She stays on top of the latest lingo with the help of a daughter in her 20s, but she finds a surprising number of phrases have stayed popular through the decades.

When her students tried to make up an excuse for not doing homework, she told them, “I don’t buy that.”

“And they looked at me. ‘Buy what, teacher?’ And then I explained and they loved it. Now they’re telling each other, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

For the latest slang, go to the source

As a young man, David Burke had a knack for picking up slang.

His ears pricked up whenever he heard interesting phrases. He’d write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke went on to make a name for himself as “Slangman” and published a whole series of self-titled books in which he teaches slang not just in English, but in foreign languages.

He got the idea to teach American slang after hanging out with a French friend more than 10 years ago.

“Somebody ran up to him and said, ‘Hey, Pascal, what’s up?'” Burke said. “And he froze for a second and looked up and started checking the ceiling.”

Now, at age 56, Burke gets the scoop on the newest slang by striking up conversations with young people.

“I saw a kid at the gym working out with a friend of his,” Burke said, “and I said, ‘Can I ask you guys a question, what word would I not know?'”

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to UCLA’s American Language Center for a special presentation before English language learners. To complicate matters, Burke told students, slang isn’t just about words.

”Americans use a lot of grunts — I’ll show you,” Burke said.

“For example, ‘I don’t know’ becomes ‘I dunno.’ ‘I dunno’ becomes the shoulders-up grunt, ‘uh-uhh-uh.'”

Burke got students to try out the “uh-uhh-uh.”

“How many cars on the freeway right now?”

“Uh-uhh-uh.”

ESL students at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

ESL students at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Like a cow

In the audience was Donald Chung and Jiu Hua Zhang. They hung on Burke’s every word.

In their short time in the US, they’ve managed to incorporate slang into their everyday conversations.

Chung is a fan of “what’s up!” Zhang says she no longer enters a room saying ”Good morning, everyone.”

“We just say, ‘hi, guys!'” she said brightly.

Zhang is feeling pretty awesome about this. Or as kids in China say: “hĕn niú” which translates into “very cow-like.”

But Chinese slang — that’s a whole other lesson for another day.


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Easter Island’s Rapa Nui Language Attempts a Comeback

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Ever since Chile annexed Easter Island more than a century ago, Spanish has been chipping away at the Polynesian-based language called Rapa Nui.

The South Pacific island’s towering stone Moai figures now lure in 60,000 visitors a year. Islanders smile, sing and dance in polyester costumes to cater to the mostly Spanish-speaking spenders.

But these tourists, fuelling the island’s economy, are also diluting the culture they came to see. Now, with only a couple thousand speakers left, the islanders are upping their effort to revive the Rapa Nui language.

Until the late 1990s, the Chilean government effectively outlawed the islanders from speaking in Rapa Nui. Any public sector job or office required Spanish. Anything involving the schools, police or property rights was in Spanish too.

Even the great, great granddaughter of a Rapa Nui King, Alicia Makohe, grew up speaking Spanish. She taught herself Rapa Nui at 14.

“There were many Chilean rules here,” she said. “Everybody in the school [spoke] Spanish. [Rapa Nui] was always forbidden. Also the places for the laws, the police… everything was ruled by the Chilean people.”

Chile changed its tune about ten years ago –– many say to protect the culture of one of its top moneymaking destinations. Chile stopped requiring Spanish in public institutions. It now funds new school programs, reading materials and music to reverse the decline of Rapa Nui.

Thanks to these funds, every school on the island has at least one class in Rapa Nui.

Virginia Haoa teaches language class to second graders at the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School, where all classes from science to history is taught in Rapa Nui.

She said in a class of 30 incoming students, four speak Rapa Nui fluently. Six months in, most students handle the language well.

“This program is the only space where kids learn Rapa Nui, and it’s important for any people to maintain their language because it is their identity, their worldview, their spirit. It’s their soul,” said Haoa.

But away from the classroom it’s a different story. Nine-year-old Gabriel Milatuke, for example, is happy to chatter away in Rapa Nui indoors. But once he’s on the basketball court or in the playground, he switches to Spanish.

At home, Rapa Nui families usually speak Spanish. Alicia Makohe’s brothers raise their children only in Spanish.

“They decided it’s better for them to speak Spanish because they’re going to go to school in Chile. They are going to be professionals there, and the Rapa Nui language is not going to help them. They think like that,” said Makohe.

But Makohe sings to her six-month-old son in Rapa Nui.

“I think the opposite because if you learn Rapa Nui then you have another language.”

Haoa said the employment situation on Easter Island needs to change.

“We need government policies—something that promises children speaking Rapa Nui they’ll get a job tomorrow. Jobs need to demand that they speak Rapa Nui, not just Spanish,” she said.

But the chances are slim. For one, the language was only recently written down. It had a strictly oral tradition. But now that’s changing.

The first ever Rapa Nui newspaper, Tāpura Reꞌo, hit the streets in 2010. Makohe’s husband Marcus Edensky publishes the paper.

“I tried to sell the first issue, though it didn’t work very well, and people mentioned to me in the street, you know, ‘I can’t read it because it’s hard,’” said Edensky.

Circulation jumped after the Rapa Nui adapted their reading style.

“Some commented to me that they came up with the idea of reading it out loud to themselves, then they would understand.”

A first dictionary is also in the works. One editor is linguist and Christian missionary, Robert Weber. He and his wife Nancy Weber have dedicated over 30 years to preserving Rapa Nui.

Robert Weber called Rapa Nui a complex language, full of expressions that can be tricky to define.

One example is hippi tiriti manaba, “which would literally mean a tucking or a tightening of the stomach,” Weber said. “That would to me mean that you’re feeling nostalgia or anxiety.”

In all likelihood, tourists will continue to flock to the island whether or not Rapa Nui survives. But without the language, the islanders’ music and dance routines would turn into pure nostalgia.

Despite Rapa Nui’s shaky future, Makohe clings to her optimism. Makohe does her part by writing new songs with Rapa Nui lyrics and creating educational videos for school programs. She said that she’s heard young islanders singing her songs in the streets of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa.

“Sometimes I speak to the little children, and they’re Chilean, but they speak Rapa Nui. It’s growing. It was going down, but now it’s coming up,” she said.

It’s difficult to imagine Rapa Nui coming back as a native tongue after its near-eradication. But it stands a better chance than it did a decade ago, now that young people speak it, and the Chilean government is backing the effort to save it.


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