School's Punjabi course goes beyond language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Tue Jan 31 14:04:49 UTC 2006

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>From the San Jose Mercury News, Posted on Mon, Jan. 30, 2006

School's Punjabi course goes beyond language

By Lisa Fernandez
Mercury News

Navjot Cheema, 17, is talking to his grandparents. He's reading holy
script. And he's explaining who he is to others on campus. For the first
time, the senior can do these things in a meaningful way, thanks to the
addition this year of Punjabi as a language elective at James Logan High
School, the first in the Bay Area to offer it. The Union City school is
one of only four high schools in California to offer Punjabi for credit.
The addition of the course reflects the growing number of families in the
Bay Area who speak Punjabi, the primary language in Punjab, which is the
name of a state in the northern tip of India and also a nearby province in
eastern Pakistan.

For Navjot and his classmates, learning to read and write their native
tongue means they're also gaining a richer understanding of their culture,
their families and their faith. But there's an unexpected bonus, too: The
Punjabi class has helped break down barriers between their families and
the wider community. ``I feel proud. It's a connection between us and the
whole school,'' Navjot said.

The majority of Punjabis from India are Sikh -- a minority religion in a
country where Hinduism is the predominant faith. Sikh men are most clearly
identified by the turbans they wear, a style of dress that often sets them
apart. Community leaders estimate there are about 50,000 Sikhs living in
the Bay Area: 35,000 to 40,000 in Fremont and other parts of southern
Alameda County, and about 10,000 to 15,000 scattered throughout the South
Bay. Of the 4,400 students at James Logan, about 300 are from families who
speak Punjabi. Many of the students speak Punjabi at home, though they
don't know how to read or write it well. Some still live with relatives
who hail from farming areas and never learned to speak English.

But now that they're learning Punjabi, the students can converse with
elders about their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is only truly
understood in its own language. ``These kids are now able to have contact
with their uncles and aunties,'' said Atamjit Singh, a Punjabi professor
at San Jose State University who used to teach Navjot and his friends when
they commuted to his campus several years ago. ``Now, they can speak over
the phone in Punjabi.  They're excited to learn about the gurus.'' The
push to bring Punjabi to James Logan began with Navjot's mother, Sarabjit
Cheema of Union City, who four years ago shuttled her son to San Jose
State for Punjabi classes. In subsequent years, Singh's lessons were
taught through video conferencing after school at James Logan.

Cheema, a Caltrans engineer and mother of three boys, is also involved in
fledgling efforts to introduce the language in Hayward and Fremont
schools. To have the course introduced into the curriculum, she had to
show that there were at least 100 students who would sign up for it. The
other California high schools offering Punjabi are in Yuba City, which
started a course at a second high school this year, and Fresno.

The introduction of a new language at a public school reflects both
shifting world politics and changing demographics. In the 1960s after the
former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Russian was the hot language. In the
1980s, American students rushed to learn Japanese to compete in the world
market. In the 1990s, schools around the country, especially in the Bay
Area where there is a large Chinese population, began offering Mandarin.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, there is a smattering of high schools that
offer Arabic. South Asian languages are also increasingly becoming of
interest. There is a national petition circulating to get Hindi taught in
the schools.

``Speaking languages like Spanish, well, that's just part of our
history,'' said Marty Abbott, director of education for the American
Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ``But now, that's changing.
The world is a different place.'' The classroom at James Logan High where
the students learn Punjabi looks, feels and sounds a bit different than a
traditional romance language course. Most of the boys, and some of the
devout girls, wear turbans. The curly script, called gurmukhi, is
unrecognizable to most Westerners. There are pictures of Sikh gurus and
Indian historical figures on the bulletin board. The language of Punjabi
is soft to the ear, with rolling ``r's'' and a variety of dialects.

Teacher Harpaul Singh Rana is a retired electrical engineer and religious
school instructor at the Fremont gurdwara, where most of the students in
the class worship. He went back to school specifically to get his
credential so he could teach Punjabi at a public school. Student Japneet
Kaur, 15, speaks Punjabi at home but doesn't know how to read or write it
very well. The benefits of taking the course, she said, were immediate.
After school, she and others sometimes log on to the Internet to read the
Guru Granth Sahib.

``Now that I can read and write, it's much easier to connect to our
history, our roots, our grandparents,'' she said. ``The people at temple
are really amazed. They can't believe Punjabi got into our high school.''
Japneet is also tickled that some white, African-American and Latino
students have stopped by outside class to peer in and see what the class
is all about. A few have even said they might sign up next semester.
``Everyone else is like, `Is it easy?' And they want to hear what their
names sound like in our language,'' she said. ``It's kind of cute.''

Satwant Samra, 15, said taking Punjabi is relevant to his life. ``This is
better than Spanish,'' he said. ``After we learn it, we can actually use
it at home.'' San Jose State's Singh said it is important for young people
to learn their history, for their own understanding, but also to be able
to educate others about who they are. ``Now they can talk about their
culture and way of life with the rest of the world,'' he said.

And speaking Punjabi also helps members of this usually insular ethnic
enclave of Sikhs to reach out to others. At James Logan, that connection
was clear just before Thanksgiving, when several Punjabi-speaking parents,
who have historically shied away from school activities because of
language and cultural differences, hosted an Indian food luncheon for
teachers to thank school officials for offering the Punjabi class.

A few months before that, Principal Don Montoya for the first time visited
the Sikh temple in Fremont to introduce himself at the gurdwara. ``We're a
very diverse community,'' Montoya said. ``It's positive that we can
reflect that in our community.''

Contact Lisa Fernandez at lfernandez at or (510) 790-7313.

 San Jose is home to the nation's largest and most expensive Sikh temple,
Sikh Gurdwara-San Jose. The region's other three gurdwaras are in Hayward,
El Sobrante and Fremont.

 There were 141,740 Punjabi speakers living in the United States in 2000,
67,820 of them in California.

 The four universities in California offering Punjabi studies programs
are: San Jose State University, Stanford University, University of
California-Berkeley and California State University-Sacramento. A total of
76 students were enrolled in Punjabi studies courses in 2002 in
California; 99 students were enrolled nationwide.

 87 million people in the world speak Punjabi. About 60 million people
speak Western Punjabi, which originated in Pakistan. About 27 million
people speak Eastern Punjabi, which originated in India.

Sources: U.S. 2000 Census and Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the
Modern Language Association of America, World Almanac

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