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Help! I can’t communicate with my Mandarin-speaking grandparents

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For a group of Siberians, Hawaii was far from a tropical paradise

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)

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

Four years ago, I went on a Hawaiian vacation. But I didn’t go snorkeling; I spent nearly all my time in the bowels of a university archive, browsing 100-year-old newspapers.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

The truth is that I can only stand so much sand and sea. And when I happened to type two words into Google — “Russians” and “Hawaii” — I stumbled across a startling historical footnote.

At the turn of the last century, the Hawaiian Board of Immigration imported more than 1,500 Russians, mostly from Siberia, to work the islands’ sugar plantations. It was a last-ditch effort to make the then-US territory of Hawaii more white.

As Patricia Polansky, the Russian bibliographer at the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library explains, the planters first brought in Japanese and Chinese workers. Asian labor was the backbone of the early sugar industry, but working the sugarcane fields was a brutal way to make a living. In 1909, several thousand Japanese laborers went on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, which worried plantation owners.

“So they decided they wanted to try what we call haole labor, or white labor,” Polansky says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

A report issued by the Commissioner of Labor on Hawaii described local planters as “willing without reserve to employ all the Caucasian workers the government can bring to the islands, at a wage one-third larger” than what was paid Asian laborers.

“When the plantation owners were looking around for white groups, there happened to be in Honolulu a man named Perelstrous, who was a Russian kind of entrepreneur,” Polansky says.

“Kind of” is the key term here. Perelstrous drew up a recruitment brochure for the Russians, and once he and his crew reached Russia, they launched a “huge, huge propaganda” effort, according to Amir Khisamutdinov, a historian at Far Eastern Federal University in Khabarovsk. “‘Oh, you need to come! We doing for you big, say, possibilities to work. Good weather…’”

“There were all kinds of things in there,” Polansky adds. “They would be given a little house, how many hours they had to work, what their wages would be.”

That, and one extra thing: The brochure also suggested the Russians would be given their own land.

“That actually didn’t turn out to be true, of course,” Polansky says. “They were coming just to work on the plantations. So that was part of what caused a lot of the trouble after the Russians got here.”

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

After getting a taste of plantation life, the Russians went on strike. To better understand their rebellion, I drove out to Hawaii Plantation Village in Waipahu, an outdoor museum of plantation life. Even though it’s only a few miles from the beach, Waipahu is nothing like the azure coast. And when I touched an actual sugar cane plant, it felt more like a weapon than food.

The Siberians probably imagined they were traveling to an island paradise. Instead, they ended up in quarantine after measles broke out on their steamer. Their encampment on a Honolulu wharf became a tourist draw, while the newspapers made a circus out of the immigration snafu. According to Khisamutdinov, a large part of this was due to communication failure.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

“Language, it was a huge problem for Russians in Hawaii,” he says. The Russians didn’t have interpreters. In fact, there were so few Russian speakers in Hawaii that authorities recruited a local actress to help negotiate disputes, like one that broke out when the Russians tried bathing in the nude on a public beach.

And there wasn’t much cultural interpretation. Everything in Hawaii was totally alien to the Russians, from the local cuisine to the tropical weather. There was no community hub, no church, no expat ambassadors to help explain, as Khisamutdinov puts it, what their obligations were and how to enroll their children in schools.

“I think it’s the biggest mistake from authorities in Hawaii,” Khisamutdinov says. “They didn’t describe.”

The Russians fled Hawaii in droves. Many headed for California or New York, and a few returned to Russia.

But the story has another twist. Seven years after the Russians first arrived in Hawaii, the Russian Revolution took place. The new government, headed by Lenin, wanted the Russians in Hawaii to come home.

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album  (Photo: Alina Simone)

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album (Photo: Alina Simone)

“So Moscow sent a man here whose name was Trautshold,” Polansky says. “He had money. He was to pay their passage back to Russia. And he was to fill out their passport applications and everything. And that’s what this album is that we have, we have the passport application album.”

The scrapbook Troutshold compiled is filled with portraits and biographical sketches of the Russians who remained. It’s an extraordinary document, probably the only place you’ll find photos of Russian men with handlebar mustaches wearing Hawaiian work clothes.

Few people took Troutshold up on his offer of free passage to war-torn communist Russia, but some who did never forgot Hawaii. And when the Soviet Union collapsed several decades later, they reemerged.

“One day, I had a phone call from Catholic Charities,” Polansky says.

“There’s a Russian woman here,” they told her.

“I met her, and she was carrying an urn with her that had her mother’s ashes in it,” Polansky says. “It happened to be that her mother was born here in Hawaii. She was a child of one of these people that came here to work on the plantations, but her family had decided to repatriate to Soviet Union.”

Years later, when her mother was on her deathbed, she told her daughter, “I want to be buried in Hawaii.” With the Iron Curtain in place, that didn’t seem likely. So she waited.

“The minute the Soviet Union collapsed, she put herself on an airplane and showed up in Hawaii with her mother’s ashes,” Polanksy says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Polansky and Khisamutdinov put the passport application album online and began to connect with even more families of the long-lost Russians of Hawaii. While their encounters with descendants haven’t all been quite as dramatic as the first one, they have been contacted by about 30 descendants of people listed in the album so far.

It’s funny to think what might Hawaii might look like had the Russian immigration scheme succeeded. Would the islands be dotted with borscht stands today? Would balalaika jam bands be performing at the annual Island Arts Festival?

These are questions you can spend an entire tropical vacation contemplating. But this is a place where you can find sushi made from spam — I doubt there’s any influence Hawaii can’t absorb.

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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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What happens when the doctor says ‘hospice’ and you understand ‘poorhouse’?

Ospizio al Colle del Piccolo S.Bernardo, Italy. Languages such as Italian ('ospizio') and Spanish ('hospicio') have words that sound like 'hospice'. But they mean something different: old people's home, poorhouse, refuge for migrants. (ro_buk/Flickr)

Ospizio al Colle del Piccolo S.Bernardo, Italy. Languages such as Italian (‘ospizio’) and Spanish (‘hospicio’) have words that sound like ‘hospice’. But they mean something different: old people’s home, poorhouse, refuge for migrants. (ro_buk/Flickr)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Daniela Gerson.

Beware of false friends — similar-sounding words with common etymologies. False friends like hospice and hospicio don’t mean the same thing.

The Spanish-language pages of Medicare and the National Institutes of Health translate hospice as hospicio. To Los Angeles resident Manuela Flores this just seems bizarre

Hospicio is a place for orphans,” says Flores, an immigrant from Nicaragua who has lived in the United States for nearly three decades. Spanish speakers from other countries give different definitions— to some it’s a refuge for migrants, to others a home for elderly people who have no family to support them. But whatever the variation hospicio means a place for the destitute, and definitely not somewhere you want your loved ones to end up.

Nicaraguan-born Manuela Flores misunderstood what hospice meant. (courtesy Manuela Flores)

Nicaraguan-born Manuela Flores misunderstood what hospice meant. (courtesy Manuela Flores)

Flores says until recently she had never come across the concept of hospice care, and she would not even know how to give a name to it in Spanish. In English, hospice means an end-of-life program that includes at home medical services as well as psychological and social support. For anyone who is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, hospice care is free. But Hispanics nationwide are making use of hospice services at lower rates. Researchers have found linguistic and cultural barriers are part of the reason.

“You have patients being offered basically to go to the poorhouse to die and they say, of course I don’t want to do that,” says, Jason Bowman, a Brown University medical student who has devoted himself to studying hospice care and Hispanics ever since he took a trip to Ecuador and learned the word was being mistranslated. Bowman, working with Dr. Joan Teno, recently completed a national study that documented that the rate of whites being treated with hospice was 30 percent higher than Hispanics.

“I think it is heartbreaking,” Bowman says, “because the Hispanic culture possibly more than any other that I’ve studied would benefit most from the central themes of hospice which are quality care focused around family and friends and support, holistic incorporating religion and spirituality, avoiding invasive sterile environments like a hospital.”

The Spanish and English words for hospice have the same Latin root: hospes. In Spanish the word came to mean a home for the poor who were unable to care for themselves. In English, the concept of hospice as a service to care for the dying took off in the 1940s in Britain. It was brought to the United States in the 1960s.

Overall, hospice care in the US is growing. And people who provide the service are starting to market it to Hispanics.

Hospice of the Valley in central Arizona is one such organization that’s creating marketing materials that cross cultural divides.

“It was difficult for me,” a man identified as Delmar Contreras says in a video produced by Hospice of the Valley. ” I was kind of skeptical of the whole idea of hospice, being a Hispanic, and we take care of our own. Me and my lady were struggling, how take care of Mami.” Contreras goes on to explain that when he realized that hospice was actually the best way he could care for his mother. “It’s the best decision that I ever made. I could never take care of my mom that way.”

That’s one person who was won over, but there are millions more facing deep cultural barriers. In California, Silvia Austerlic meets with groups of migrant workers as a cultural liaison for Hospice of Santa Cruz County.

“I say that I work for hospice and I ask, ‘Have you heard about hospice?’ And always there are many people who never heard about the service,” says Austerlic, a native of Argentina. “I say, ‘That’s great, so let me tell you.’ We don’t use the word in Spanish, hospicio; we use the words servicios de hospice.”

She uses the English word to avoid confusion. Then comes the key step of explaining a new concept.

“Hospice is a program, but it’s also a philosophy,” says Austerlic. “When I say it’s a philosophy I look into the eyes of farm workers and they all nod. They understand it’s not just someone coming to your house at the end of life. It’s a different relationship with death. It’s not how you want to die. It’s how you want to live until the end.

That’s something that Manuela Flores, the Nicaraguan immigrant, wishes had been explained to her. Flores says her medical provider used the English word, but his explanation was inadequate. When her mother-in-law died less than 48 hours after her family had approved hospice care, Flores was terrified that they had “signed off on the death of la señora.”

Flores believes immigrants like her need to better informed about programs like hospice. “I am not going to return to my country,” she says in Spanish. “I am going to end my life here with all of my family. And so I need to know. Regardless if we know English, we are working here and we need to know about programs like this. There are people who have died without knowing about these programs.”

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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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Ride New York City’s N train, with a Spanish twist

New York's new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

New York’s new look N line (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

Here’s a guest post from New-York-based reporter Bruce Wallace

New York City’s subway lines sometimes take on cultural meaning, maybe even pop­-cultural meaning. Duke Ellington made taking the A train famous. Rap icon Jay-Z’s name gives the parallel J and Z lines more cred (although his moniker is probably not a reference to them). The L line has become synonymous with the hipsters it ferries into Brooklyn. Listen to the audio:

Now the city’s N line is giving winking acknowledgement to Spanish-speaking culture. A few days ago, a number of its signs sprouted tildes — the curving accent mark that turns the N into the Spanish letter “Enye”.

The N line begins — or ends, depending on your perspective — by the water at Coney Island, way south in Brooklyn. 30 stops and an hour later, it ends (or begins) in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria.

The enye fairies, who sprinkled tildes on the yellow-and-black N-line signs at various stops, apparently didn’t make it out this far. The amended signs are concentrated toward the middle of the line, as it runs through midtown and downtown Manhattan and central Brooklyn. These are busy stops, though, and not many people there seemed to have time to take notice.

The enyes are the work of Z Street Art, a project that’s throwing up new pieces of art in public places each day for six months. The enyes, which went up Saturday, are their first strike. The group explained on its Tumblr page, “The N-line is now the Ñ-line for the 24.28% Spanish speakers in New York City.”

A multicultural advertising agency called Globalworks launched a similar effort last year, urging New York City’s MTA to change the N line to the Enye line annually during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Down at the N stop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that’s nearly half Hispanic, some commuters were intrigued.

“That’s crazy man, I don’t even know what that means,” said Deshaun Sumpter.

I told him the rationale for the tilde — how it was a recognition of the city’s Spanish speakers.

“Oh, okay,” he said, laughing. “I got Spanish friends, you know what I’m saying? I give props to them, you know? We’re all American people, we all gotta give props to each other.”

A couple of riders had ideas about other lines with possible Spanish implications. One guy suggested the L line could be re-spelled “El” to make the Spanish article “the.” Another worried about the possible confusion of a rolled R in the R Line.

A few Spanish-speaking school kids who walked by said they thought it was cool that their language was getting some recognition.

Claudia Lechuga (“‘Lechuga,’ which actually means ‘lettuce’ in Spanish,” she explained) lives right by the Sunset Park N stop, and she’s into the enye.

“I love it!” she enthused. “I think it’s really great. It’s so cute. It’s kind of a nice homage to what the neighborhood has been, historically.”

The enyes found a fan in Blanca Gonzalez, too. She’s originally from Mexico, and runs an employment agency nearby, where the clientele is largely Hispanic. She likes the message, although she’s a bit worried about the delivery.

“It’s like two sides of the story,” she said. “First of all, I think it’s not good to be doing graffitis. But on the other side, they want to be heard, you know what I’m saying? There has to be a message that they want to send saying, ‘Yes we exist in here and we need to be represented and you can’t just deny we’re here, so listen to us.’”

John Lee works around the corner in this neighborhood, which is also home to a big Asian community. Like a good New Yorker, he’s skeptical. “People don’t pay attention, they’re too busy in their own world, right?”

He paused and pointed out a young couple hugging near an enye. “Look at these lovers — they don’t care about the N line. Do you care about the N line? Hell no, they don’t care about the N line. Nobody cares.”

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Sugar Sammy: Quebec’s Multilingual Court Jester

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Samir Khullar aka Sugar Sammy is the Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants. As a kid, he spoke Punjabi and Hindi at home and French at school. But he learned to tell jokes in English.

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I’d host all the talent shows at school,” he says. “I’d make all the announcements on the intercoms, and when we had school trips the teachers would let me go to the front of the bus to entertain the kids.” He did all that in French. He had to– those were the rules. But he’d switch to English whenever he could, “just because it wasn’t allowed. As soon as it’s not allowed, as a kid you want to do it.”

That sense of linguistic rebellion has stayed with Khullar as Sugar Sammy. For years, he did shows in French and shows in English. He wanted to do a bilingual show, but people told him it wouldn’t work, that the public wouldn’t want to see it. Last year, he finally started performing bilingually, flipping back and forth between French and English.

Traditionally, Quebec is viewed as consisting of ‘two solitudes,’ one Francophone or French-speaking, the other Anglophone or English-speaking. But Sugar Sammy says that’s no longer the case. “I knew here was a certain demographic in Montreal…who live in French and English on a daily basis without even thinking about it. So I decided to put this show together and try to mix both sides.”

Sugar Sammy’s bilingual show, You’re Gonna Rire, is a raging success. It’s the kind of mash-up that Quebec’s French language charter is supposed to guard against. So you might think that some Francophone politicians, especially from Quebec’s separatist ruling party, may not appreciate Sugar Sammy. But he has become so popular that politicians court him in public.

He appeared recently with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on French language TV. Quebec’s most powerful politician and its hottest comedian each used the occasion to prod each other linguistically. Smiles all round, of course.

Sugar Sammy now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). It’s mainly in English, with some French, Punjabi and Hindi thrown in.

The Indian connection has developed beyond that: Sugar Sammy just completed a series of sold-out shows in Indian cities. He told audiences there how surprised he was to find himself in a modern society, and how he’d have to tell his Canadian-based parents that they had misled him. “It’s no longer that pure India that they thought it was.”

You could go several ways with material like that. Sugar Sammy turns it into comedy.

There’s more on Sugar Sammy on his website and his YouTube channel. Also, check out this previous World in Words blog post and podcast on Quebec’s latest battles over language.

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Caught Between Two Languages

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

Here’s a guest post from Mexico-based reporter Myles Estey…

It’s Saturday morning in the rural Mexican state of Zacatecas and we are in English class. Antonio Acosta gives basic lessons to 35 teachers. “In! Between! Over! On!” he shouts out during one exercise. English levels vary, so Acosta is reviewing some of the basics.

In the class is Nora Santana. She can speak English fine, but feels rusty, too. She’s here to feel more comfortable with the language in order to better connect with her new students, those who grew up in the United States and who are having trouble keeping up with classes in Spanish. “They feel so confused,” said Santana. “They don’t understand everything I teach in Spanish.”

Other teachers, like Eduardo García, speak very little English and hit communication walls quickly with new students, especially those now arriving unable to speak Spanish at all.

In recent years, Acosta, an education official here, has witnessed the influx of school-aged kids returning to Mexico. They arrive with their parents, who have left the United States because they are undocumented or couldn’t find work. Acosta says the kids can feel disoriented in a Mexican classroom—like foreigners, but in what is supposedly their own nation.

Now, Acosta is pioneering a project to get Mexican teachers more accustomed to English. While some believe that the money might be better spent other ways, Acosta says that English classes are critical to help teachers and their students adjust.

Mexican teachers learning English take a break from class (Photo: Myles Estey)

“If the teachers learn English, the basic English level, they are going to use this kind of tool to communicate with the children that are coming from the United States,” said Acosta.

The class is best suited for teachers like 28-year-old Ari Rodríguez.

Rodríguez says she can have a tough time communicating with some of her new students from the US and keeps English crib notes handy. She mentions one newcomer, Juan, though he goes by John in the US. He is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, who just moved here from Texas. But when you hear Juan and Rodríguez speak, it’s clear that Juan’s Spanish is improving fast.

Juan is getting good grades here, too, except in Spanish and History. He still cannot articulate his answers to his teachers. “Its kind of hard to explain it,” Juan says. “Like, when I don’t know how to say the words, I just try to explain it to them.”

But for most students, speaking isn’t the hardest part—it’s classroom comprehension.

Meet Ashley. She’s 11, and born and raised in Southern California. She just moved to Zacatecas with her parents, who were undocumented in the US. Ashley speaks Spanish perfectly, but has always done her reading and writing in English. She is struggling to read in Spanish and finds the overall transition “weird.”

Ashley’s younger brother, Yoel, is also having a hard time at it. But he’s relieved to be here with his older sister, and a cousin is here, too. Being together, speaking English in the schoolyard, it makes their new life in Mexico easier. And they keep in touch in English with their friends back in the US over Facebook.

Luis Roberto Castañeda directs Zacatecas’ Migration Institute. He says of the 13,000 or so kids who have lived in the US and are now in the Zacatecas school system, nearly all have some difficulty at school. And there are no national programs in Mexico to attend to these students’ needs. Castañeda says that when the US-born students cannot fully understand classes, they do mental translations back to English. It slows them down.

Like Castañeda, Acosta believes that his pilot project is more than learning English: It represents an effort to help US-born children feel more welcome in Mexico and tune their teachers to the fact that their students straddle two worlds.

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The Words that Armed Anders Breivik

How much we should blame extreme political rhetoric for the actions of Anders Breivik? Did words help pull the trigger so many times? Is it accurate to describe him as a lone madman, existing outside Norway’s civilized society?

What of Glen Beck who likened Breivik’s victims at a political summer camp to the Hitler Youth? And what might the late Stieg Larsson have thought about this?

This week’s pod attempts to answer some of these questions with a series of reports and interviews culled from the BBC and the Big Show.

Among those featured:  Nottingham University’s, Matthew Goodwin who studies fascist groups;  former Norwegian diplomat Jan Egeland;   Andrew Silke who advises the United Nations on terrorism and has written The Psychology of Counter-terrorismNick Fraser who edits the BBC’s Storyville series of international documentaries and wrote The Voice of Modern Hatred, a book about the far right in Europe.

And two more people, each with interesting back stories: Maajid Nawaz, who co-founded the UK-based think tank Quilliam which studies Islamic extremism. Nawaz himself was a self-confessed Islamic extremist: for 13 years, he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global group dedicated to uniting Muslim countries in a caliphate governed by Islamic law.

Lastly, there is Lars Gule of Oslo University College. In the wake of the Norwegian atrocity, he was interviewed by many news organizations including the BBC piece that’s in the podcast.  Gule tracks right wing extremists in Scandinavia, and believes that he was in communication via web chat with Anders Breivik. The Big Show also interviewed Gule, but decided against broadcasting the interview because of concerns about Gule’s own past.

In the 1970s, Gule spent several months in a Lebanese prison after being convicted of illegal possession of weapons. The weapons were explosives. Gule was carrying them on behalf of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The intended targets were Israelis.

When asked, Gule was happy confirm these details with us; he’s not trying to hide anything. But it seemed awkward and distracting to have him analyze violent extremism in his own country when he himself had been convicted in part because of his own link to violent extremism in another country.  A counter argument might be that Gule, like Maajid Nawaz, has a special insight into such activities. With that in mind,  I decided to run the BBC’s interview with Gule. It’s a pity that the interview itself doesn’t make note of Gule’s past.

To round things off,  we have a profile of New York-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador. When he moved to the US, Blitz didn’t need to learn English; it’s widely spoken in Ghana. But he says he did have to “learn the lingo of rap.” Which makes Blitz a linguistic as well as a musical ambassador.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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