Refugees from Burma

Refugees from Burma

First of all, is it Burma or Myanmar? When the military junta took power in 1989, they changed the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which is a literary form of the same word. The pro-democracy movement does not recognize the country’s leadership, or the name change, as legitimate, and therefore calling the country “Burma” signals sympathy to the pro-democracy movement, and calling it “Myanmar” signals recognition of the current government as legitimate. This article from the BBC (2007) explains the controversy well.

That said, not everyone from Burma is Burmese! Burma has 8 major ethnic groups, each occupying one state within Burma. The Burmans are the majority group. The Karen are the largest ethnic minority. The other major groups are the Mon, Kayah, Rakhine, Shan, Chin, and Kachin, and there are around 145 other ethnic groups in the country. Many of the ethnic minority groups have historically been in conflict with the government, in times of democracy as well as military rule. Ethnic minorities such as the Karen have faced human rights abuses including forced labor and mass killings for several decades. The Mae La Refugee Camp (photos) in Thailand currently hosts around 50,000 people, most of them Karen. In contrast to the ethnically persecuted groups like the Karen, Burman refugees tend to be political refugees in the pro-democracy movement following Aung San Suu Kyi. The largest groups arriving in the USA are the Sgaw Karen, one of the Karen ethnic groups, followed by the Burmans. Other groups are also arriving in the USA in smaller numbers. Note that these groups have different languages and cultures, and should not be conflated into one group.

Roughly 3,500 refugees have been resettled to Utica, NY from Burma as of July 2015. Recently, they’ve been resettled at a rate of 200 – 300 people per year, about 2/3 of the total number of refugees resettled to Utica in recent years. This number includes everyone resettled from Burma/Thailand, but the majority of the refugees from Burma in the US are Sgaw Karen.


http://fromburmatonewyork.com gives a fantastic overview of refugees from Burma who come to the USA. It was created as a master’s thesis at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The numbers have changed, but the stories and situations are very relevant. I especially recommend checking out their “Resettlement in Three Maps”. (2008).

For a general overview with lots of pictures and practical advice for professionals working with refugees from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA. (2010).

The “Refugees from Burma” PDF from The Center for Applied Linguistics, housed on the Cultural Orientation Resource Center page gives an in-depth overview of the various ethnic groups of Burma, as well as their history, culture, religion, language, education, and more. (2007).

An online resource focused on Sgaw Karen language is http://www.drumpublications.org/. The site is also dedicated to sharing Sgaw Karen culture and advocating for education and providing educational materials.

Challenges in the USA:

For challenges in education, this report from Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. Combined with information about Refugees from Bhutan. (2014).

For healthcare challenges when working with populations from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA (also linked above). (2010).

More considerations for healthcare providers from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center. (2012).

Prepared for a presentation to Bridges to Academic Success, a collaborative project of RISLUS and CASE at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Refugee Resettlement in Upstate NY

By the Numbers

69,933 refugees were admitted to the USA in fiscal year 2015. The 10 largest populations are from:
Burma (18,386 people)
Iraq (12,676 people)
Somalia (8,858 people)
Democratic Republic of Congo (7,876 people)
Bhutan (5,775 people)
Iran (3,109 people)
Syria (1,682 people)
Eritrea (1,596 people)
Sudan (1,578 people)
Cuba (1,527 people)

10 Most widely spoken refugee languages in the US (updated July 31, 2015)
1. Arabic 2. Nepali 3. Somali 4. Sgaw Karen 5. Spanish 6. Chaldean 7. Burmese 8. Armenian 9. Other languages 10. Farsi (Western)

2,477 refugees were admitted to New York State in fiscal year 2015. The 5 largest populations are from:
Burma (1,263 people)
Somalia (790 people)
Bhutan (495 people)
Iraq (430 people)
Democratic Republic of Congo (375 people)

Figures from the Refugee Processing Center.

The Resettlement Process

A refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For an overview of the process of becoming a recognized refugee and coming to the USA, the FAQ for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) gives a detailed description of the process. Alternatively, read this briefing on the USA refugee admissions program and process from the State Department Website. (Published September 11, 2015). In short:

  1. Become recognized by the UNCHR and USA as a person who is unable to return to your native country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution.
  2. Several rounds of security checks the National Counterterrorism Center, NCTC; the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center; DHS; the Department of Defense; and other agencies.
  3. Health screening to identify diseases of public health significance, including in many cases chest X-rays for tuberculosis. Individuals with communicable diseases may not travel to the USA.
  4. Before departure, refugees receive a cultural orientation about life in the USA and what to expect in their new home. They also sign a promissory note agreeing to pay back travel expenses.
  5. Arrival in the USA.

This process takes 18 to 24 months or longer. However, many individuals stay in refugee camps for years, or even decades before this process even starts. For example, refugees from Burma began arriving in the USA in large numbers in 2007. Some of them had lived in refugee camps in Thailand since 1988. Refugees from Burma were by far the largest group admitted to the USA in 2015.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) works with 9 non-profit domestic “National Voluntary Agencies” in the US to coordinate refugee resettlement to the USA. Each of these agencies works with “local affiliate” organizations that interact with the newly arrived refugees and assist them for the first 90 days in the USA. According to the briefing linked above, there are about 315 local affiliates in about 180 communities throughout the United States.

To give a concrete example of this, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR) is the local affiliate organization in Utica, NY. Representatives from this organization meet newly arrived refugees at the airport, and make sure they have food, shelter, and basic necessities for the first 90 days in the USA. Refugees are provided with native language support to help them with crucial paperwork, take them to medical appointments, learn about life in the USA. Learn about the services MVRCR provides here. The National Voluntary Agency that works with the UNHCR to coordinate the arrival of new refugees to Utica, NY through MVRCR is Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service (LIRS). LIRS works with local affiliate agencies like MVRCR in 24 states.

Prepared for a presentation to Bridges to Academic Success, a collaborative project of RISLUS and CASE at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Language Varieties

Links and resources: Bad Grammar, Broken English, and Language Varieties

What’s the difference between languages, dialects and accents?

First, here’s the breakdown according to linguists: Languages are mutually intelligible systems. That means that the speakers can understand each other. A monolingual English speaker from New York can communicate with an English speaker from Texas and an English speaker from London. But a monolingual English speaker can’t communicate with a monolingual Nepali speaker. English and Nepali are different languages – they are mutually unintelligible. Within a single language, there are different varieties. There can be differences in pronunciation (like the difference between English from California, from Boston, and from Florida). These different types of pronunciation are different accents. There can be native accents as well as foreign accents. Actually, we all speak with an accent, you just don’t tend to pay close attention to pronunciation until you’re talking to people who speak differently from. To that person, you probably have an accent. Dialects are mutually intelligible systems with slightly different grammar rules. For example, British English is structurally different from mainstream American English. Compare the following:

-Has John any money? (British) vs. Does John have any money? (American)
-I’ll catch you up. (British) vs. I’ll catch up with you. (American)
-I’ll not have a bath tonight. (British) vs. I won’t take a bath tonight. (American)

It’s important to note that these dialects are structurally different, but that they are systematic and they tend to be considered equally valid. People may think that one sounds better than the other (and speakers of different dialects often do have different accents as well), but it’s widely recognized that that’s just personal preference and not a matter of one being linguistically superior to another.

Another dialect of English is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It has also been called Black English or Ebonics. The name is actually misleading – not all speakers of AAVE are African American, and not all African Americans speak AAVE. But this is what it’s called in the field, so unless we find a better name for it, AAVE it is. As before, compare the following structures:

-He singin. (AAVE) vs. He’s singing. (Mainstream American)
-He be singin. (AAVE) vs. He sings. (Mainstream American)
-He been singin. (AAVE) vs. He’s been singing. (Mainstream American)
-He ain’t never sang like that before. (AAVE). vs. He has never sung like that before. (Mainstream American)

The first sentence is in the present tense in both varieties. The second sentence shows a habitual action, and the third sentence is used to describe a situation that started in the past and continues to the present. Again, these varieties are structurally different, but that they are both systematic and one is not linguistically superior to another. Some people have argued that “double negatives” like “ain’t never” cancel each other out and make a positive. However, in other languages like mainstream Spanish, this is a typical linguistic structure. The technical term for this is negative concord.

Unfortunately, AAVE is NOT consistently recognized as systematic and linguistically valid by many mainstream English speakers. It has been called “ungrammatical”, “incorrect” and “broken English”. But, the difference between the levels of prestige of so-called “Standard English” and AAVE has nothing to do with the validity of linguistic structures. What it comes down to is the prestige of the people who speak it. “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. -Unknown.

Language Contact

Links and resources: Language Contact

Loan Words

Loan words are words from one language that are incorporated into the vocabulary of another language. Some examples in English are sushi from Japanese, astrology from Greek, and justice from French. English is known for having lots of words from various backgrounds. These days, other languages are English words like computer.

For some examples of words that English got from other languages, check out the extensive Wikipedia collection here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_English_words_by_country_or_language_of_origin
English isn’t the only language with loan words! For some examples of Spanish words originally from Arabic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language_influence_on_the_Spanish_language#List_of_words_of_Arabic_origin

Do borrowed words degrade a language?

No! Languages change over time. Words are lost, words are gained, and sometimes words change their meanings. None of the world’s languages today are spoken the way they were 100 years ago. In fact, the romance languages, (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and more) were once considered “degraded” forms of Latin. Some people have a tendency to call language change “degradation” as it happens around them. But historically, language change is rather referred to as “evolution”.

Code Switching

When two bilinguals who speak the same languages talk to each other, it’s possible for code switching to occur. Code switching is the use of two languages in one conversation. Although code switching has a reputation among some people as coming from the random mixing and imperfect use of two languages, there is a structure to code switching. Switches have to adhere to the structural rules of both languages. Therefore, bilinguals who use a lot of code switching are very highly proficient in both of their languages – they’re following the rules of both systems at once!

People code switch for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there’s a word or phrase that is hard to translate to another language. Other times, speakers may change languages according to the topic they’re talking about. (For example, two Russian-English bilingual teenagers talking in English about school topics, and in Russian about family topics.) Code switching can also be used to emphasize a shared culture and identity.

What is “Spanglish”, and why do people speak it?

“Spanglish” refers to the dual use of English and Spanish in a single conversation. Due to the widespread use of Spanish-English code switching, and the resulting recurrent patterns, some have argued that Spanglish is its own “intertwined language“.  Spanglish is not “degraded Spanish”, nor is it “broken English”. Rather, Spanglish is a language variety that some people use to represent the culture and identity of Spanish-English bilinguals.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins develop as a form of communication between speakers who do not share a common language. (This is different from code switching, which includes bilinguals who speak both of each other’s languages). Historically, pidgin varieties are developed in situations such as trade, or as a result of the oppression of one group by another, such as colonization.

In cases where pidgin varieties are spoken for an extended period of time, and are spoken by a second generation as a native language, they become Creoles. Creoles are fully systematic, structured, legitimate languages. Historically, creoles have been devalued because people thought they sounded like “broken English” or “corrupted French”. However, with increased awareness about the grammatical systems of creoles, these varieties have gained more legitimacy in the minds of their speakers and surrounding communities.

Watch a video about Jamaican Patois (Patwa) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRI3srdcia0&feature=youtu.be (2mins 20sec).

Further Reading: 

One introductory textbook that covers topics related to language contact and language attitudes in great detail is Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism, by Carol Myers-Scotton. (Blackwell, 2006).

What is language?

Links and resources: What is language?

How many languages are there in the world?

Ethnologue number of languges

From https://www.ethnologue.com July, 2015: click the image to go to the original website

A great resource to find out about the world’s languages, where they are spoken, and how many speakers there are is https://www.ethnologue.com. Currently, Ethnologue estimates there are 7,102 living languages.

Which 5 languages are the most widely spoken?

According to Ethnologue, the languages with the most native speakers, at over 100 million each, are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English Hindi-Urdu, and Arabic. In May 2015, the South China Morning Post (international edition) made this fun infographic! Click to see it in high resolution on the original website.

A world of languages

From South China Morning Post: click the image to see original website

What are the parts of language?

General Resources
The following books provide a nice overview of linguistics (the scientific study of language), including all the parts outlined below. The first two are the textbooks I’ve used in my Introduction to Linguistics class. The third is a fun introduction to linguistics by analyzing jokes.

Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Published by the Ohio State University Linguistics Department.
An Introduction to Langauge. Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. Published by Cengage Learning.
Understanding Language Through Humor. Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb. Published by Cambridge.

Languages can be broken down into the following subparts:

Phonetics: the study of the physical  properties of speech sounds.

Phonology: the study of the sound system in a spoken language, including which sounds are present in a language, and the rules for their combination. In signed languages, phonology consists of the combination of handshapes, movements, and locations.

Morphology: the study of the way words are constructed.

Syntax: the study of phrase and sentence formation.

Semantics: the study of the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

Pragmatics: the study of the rules governing the use of language. For example, how context and situation affect meaning.

Internet compilations of interesting words in other languages

Bronx EdTech Showcase: Developing a hybrid class with a technical advisor

Today I had the pleasure of presenting at the Bronx Educational Technology Showcase on the panel Two Heads Are Better than One!: Forming Creative Partnerships in Online Learning.

The theme of the panel centered on developing a hybrid class with a technical advisor. I had the good fortune of working closely with Alyson Vogel to transition my class to hybrid (and then push it further!) over the last two years. My part of the presentation centered on how I worked with Alyson to develop a hybrid format for my bilingualism course, and the continued integration of online tools even after the original transition to a hybrid format. I shared the following example.

I have integrated online tools like VoiceThread and BlackBoard’s discussion board to achieve a state of “flow” and continuity within a unit. This started simple in the first semester of the transition, by recording VoiceThread lectures and creating comprehension questions which students answer and submit for attendance credit. The next semester, I added discussion board, along with deadlines and a rubric, so that the class could stay connected despite our relatively few in-person meetings. Here’s what our unit on code-switching looked like this semester:

  1. Students gather data by recording a conversation where two bilinguals are talking using both of their languages.
  2. Students read a chapter about code-switching from the textbook and watch a VoiceThread presentation consisting about the various phenomena related to code-switching. They complete and submit associated comprehension questions.
  3. Students answer questions from a worksheet to analyze their own data gathered in step 1. They support each other on Discussion Board to try to identify examples of key terms from their own recordings.
  4. Before the in-person class, I wrote down great examples from the worksheets and discussion board comments, as well as examples that students struggled with.
  5. During the in-person class, we were able to move quickly through all of the technical definitions since questions, clarifications, and examples had already been addressed online. We briefly defined and gave an example of each term as a review, before moving on on to using those terms to identify and describe code-switching phenomena from real-life examples. Students were given time to discuss their own analyses in pairs.
  6. After the in-person class, students once again supported each other on Discussion board, and prepared their analyses for final submission.

At first, students felt overwhelmed by the number of steps, but since each unit follows a similar format, it became intuitive to them. It helped me support the students every step of the way, and let them work in a slow-thinking environment. I’m looking forward to continuing to experiment with models of online and hybrid teaching!