Foreign language skills benefit refugee students in Texas

As the year’s last gathering of the Chin Student Club at Lewisville High got underway, kids worked on biology homework, enjoyed a traditional dish of fermented tea leaf salad and talked about things like fast cars and soccer — in their native language of Hakha.

The Dallas Morning News reports the suburban setting was worlds away from the life most had known a decade earlier as the children of rural farmers persecuted for their culture and Christian faith in Myanmar’s Chin state. Most came to the U.S. as refugees knowing little to no English, schooled only — if at all — in a British-style dialect that left them ill-prepared to deal with the English they heard in Texas.

"It was, like, ‘What have we been learning?’" remembered Hanah Sung, a 17-year-old sophomore at the high school’s Killough campus for ninth- and 10th-graders.

Already struggling to learn English as they negotiated new lives in an unfamiliar land, Lewisville’s Chin students faced yet another challenge as they worked their way through the Texas school system: the state’s two-credit foreign-language requirement for high school graduation eligibility. Their studies and potential suffered as a result; one student, for example, tried three times without success to pass an American Sign Language course.

"We already have a first language," said sophomore Diana Van Tin Mawi, the Chin Student Club’s 16-year-old president. "English is our second language. Why do we need to learn another language when we have our own language?"

That all changed this month when the Lewisville Independent School District, at the behest of teachers eager to aid their doubly challenged students, launched a Hakha language test allowing Chin students to earn credit by showing proficiency in their own language — just as those who speak Spanish or French can do in their own tongues.

But even as the test eases the path toward a diploma while opening up other study opportunities, the development means much more than that for a people once oppressed for their cultural identity: It’s an affirmation that their language matters.

As Hanah put it: "It’s an honor."

About 4,000 Chins have made their home in southern Denton County over the last 15 years, making it the country’s second-largest Chin community after Indianapolis. An estimated 1,000 Chin students attend Lewisville ISD schools, including about 40 at Killough, where they count language, along with clothing and food, as part of their Chin identity.

"It’s where we began," Diana said.

The Chin speak several languages, but in Lewisville ISD the most common is Hakha Chin. According to Wikipedia, Hakha is spoken by fewer than 500,000 people, most in Myanmar but also in nations in which refugees have settled, such as Canada, Norway and New Zealand.

In Myanmar, Chins are among several religious minorities — most notably the Muslim Rohingya — that have been hounded and even brutalized for decades by a military dictatorship that came to power in the 1960s. Chins and others were forced to learn Burmese, and those who wouldn’t convert to Buddhism were punished with extortion and forced labor.

"The Burmese were forcing us to be like them," Hanah said.

Though the military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, many say the military retains much influence and that the persecution continues. Radio Free Asia recently reported that Chin villagers were being forced to transport food rations for troops battling rebel armies, with the military demanding one laborer per family.

Chin students in Lewisville remember being mostly taught in Burmese, but they learned Hakha at home and at churches through community efforts to keep Chin culture alive, a practice that has since carried over to Texas.

Failing to preserve their language, Hanah said, would be like "losing a part of ourselves. It’s who we are."

Many Chin families fled hundreds of miles to neighboring or nearby countries, such as Malaysia, some dodging bullets through jungle terrain as they sought jobs despite their illegal status. In Malaysia, where many of Lewisville’s Chin students spent time, persecution continued as their parents endured exploitation by corrupt law officers.

"We were scared," said sophomore Val Thang, 15. "Not for us, but for our parents. If they get arrested, we don’t have anybody."

While many of Lewisville’s Chins came to America as refugees from Malaysia, others, like Killough sophomore Bawi Peng, 17, came straight from Myanmar to the U.S., where he was reunited with the father he hadn’t seen for six years.

Few had spent time in cities or seen traffic-filled streets, so the kids’ first impressions of city living were of bustle and color and, as parents took wee-hour warehouse work to make ends meet, around-the-clock activity.

Chins began populating southern Denton County in the early 2000s, finding the fast-growing area rife with jobs and settling into sprawling apartment complexes where they established communities in line with former village affiliations.

"It’s grown leaps and bounds from when I started," said site coordinator Julianne Redus of Communities in Schools of North Texas, who works with Chin students, among others, as part of the organization’s mission to curb dropout rates. Six years ago, she recalled, one school’s Chin population jumped from 32 one year to 100 the next.

The refugees’ acclimation is aided by churches and agencies such as Chin Community Ministry, which assigns volunteer mentors to help them negotiate American life and bureaucracy, offering rides and helping with government forms and homework.

Despite being well-versed in their own tongue, Chin students still faced foreign language requirements that forced them to take a third language, such as Spanish, even as they struggled to learn English.

"The Chin language is nothing like English or Spanish," said executive director Becky Nelson, Chin Community Ministry’s executive director. "So to have to take two languages that are so different from your own creates a lot of frustration."

Students with native or learned ability in languages like Spanish, French, Chinese or Korean could already take foreign-language tests for credit. So with a growing number of Chin students populating Lewisville schools, teachers prodded the district to develop a similar test for those kids to capitalize on an expertise they already possessed.

"This is the group, when you look at the percentage of student population that we have, where there were disparities," said Annie Rivera, Lewisville ISD’s world language administrator. "They had no opportunity to show their skills."

Last fall, the district began working with Avant Assessment, a Eugene, Oregon-based company that develops tests in languages ranging from Vietnamese and Tamil to Amharic and Urdu, to develop proficiency testing for Hakha.

The test went live this month. Hakha is now one of 32 languages that Lewisville ISD offers for credit, with students able to earn up to four credits in a particular tongue depending on their ability to respond to written and verbal prompts.

"It’s a developmental type of skill," Rivera said. "You have to be able to use it. It’s not just memorization."

By year’s end, nearly all of the Chin students at the Killough campus had taken the new test.

"It was not that tough," Hmun Nawl, 16, said proudly. "It was actually kind of easy, because Hakha is my first language."

Having those two credits under their belts puts Hmun one step closer to his goal of becoming an architect, and Hanah closer to medical school, and Val closer to becoming a mechanical engineer, and 10th-grader Dawt Hniang, 16, closer to Bible college. Diana, the Chin Student Club president, has visions of her future that involve returning to her homeland to help develop the area’s suffering infrastructure.

The students’ lives are full of promise and opportunities that seemed impossible in their childhood, when they felt fearful of just being who they were.

That’s why the test "is so much more than just a credit," Rivera said. "It means the world to them, graduating high school after everything they’ve been through. It’s an incredible way to validate who they are."

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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