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Opening Up Language Through Tongue Twisters

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Opening Up Language Through Tongue Twisters

Performing Arts

Opening Up Language Through Tongue Twisters

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Here's a story from Judith Sloan. Among other things, she teaches theater in New York City, and her students are mostly new immigrants. Like most high schoolers, they can be hard to motivate. Not too long ago a performance was coming up. The students were supposed to have memorized their lines, but when Judith arrived for rehearsal, some of her young actors were playing games; the rest were sprawled on the floor.

Ms. JUDITH SLOAN (Theater Teacher): So I laid down on the floor with them. They told me they were exhausted from speaking English. I didn't know what to do. So I asked them to show me all the verbal tricks they knew in their own languages: songs, poems, games, tongue twisters.

Unidentified Teen #1: The one that I used to like the most (sings in Spanish).

Unidentified Teen #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Teen #1: In English? Oh. The sailor who went out to sea to see what he could see, and the only thing he could see was the bottom of the sea. It makes more sense in Spanish.

Ms. SLOAN: Suddenly they were stopping me after rehearsals outside the building to sing me songs...

Unidentified Teen #3: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. SLOAN: ...and recite more tongue twisters.

Unidentified Teen #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Teen #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Teen #6: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Teen #7: (Foreign language spoken)

NERGIES: You want me to talk in English? I have to use so much energy of me.

Ms. SLOAN: A practicing Muslim, Nergies is the most traditional of the group and the most outspoken.

NERGIES: In your language, you can say, like, anything because it's in your tongue. So you don't have to think. But when you use English words, you have to think and talk. So it's like two kind of energy you're using.

Ms. SLOAN: So I put the scripts aside and start out on a mission to get them to teach me as many games as they can remember.

Did anybody play these games when you were a little kid?

Group: (In unison) Yeah, we did.

Ms. SLOAN: What do you call those?

Unidentified Teen #8: Numbers.

Unidentified Teen #9: Numbers.

Unidentified Teen #10: Numbers.

Unidentified Teen #11: Right. Numbers is like--it's a game, and it's a counting game. You just start from one, and you go to the highest number you can.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Unidentified Teen #11: There's one, two, three, four...

Unidentified Teen #12: (Foreign language spoken)

ATTILA(ph): My name is Attila. I'm from Budapest, Hungary. (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SLOAN: Attila was really good at the tongue twisters. He had had a lot of practice playing theater games when he was a kid in Hungary.

ATTILA: (Foreign language spoken)

For example, you're a store salesman, and you're selling body parts. And someone goes in the store looking for a left toenail. And the conversation would have to be a tongue twister.

(Foreign language spoken)

And if I stopped in the middle of the tongue twister, the other person in the scene would have to continue from the place where I stopped.

(Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SLOAN: All the game playing made it easier for the kids to share their stories of migration.

NERGIES: I was two years old when I left Afghanistan, and on that time there was war there and we lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, for 10 years and moved here on September 2nd, 2001, without my mom.

Ms. SLOAN: Nergies tells me she wants to take six months off from high school to spend time with her ailing mother in Pakistan.

NERGIES: Even though I don't have a green card, I want to take a risk because who knows if the law will allow me to come back or not.

(Reading poem) ...(Unintelligible), where are you?

Ms. SLOAN: Nergies writes a new poem and brings it to rehearsal.

NERGIES: (Reading) ...go far without you. (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SLOAN: On the night of the final show, my students perform pieces about longing...

NERGIES: (Reading) Without you, I'm blind...

Ms. SLOAN: ...memory, friendships, the future and home...

NERGIES: (Reading) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SLOAN: ...sometimes in their own languages...

NERGIES: (Reading) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SLOAN: ...sometimes in English.

Group: (In unison) South Side ...(Unintelligible). Bangladesh, Colombia, India, India, Trinidad, El Salvador, Mexico and...

Unidentified Teen #13: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of multiple voices speaking in foreign languages; stomping)

BLOCK: That's Judith Sloan with students from the Queens International High School and Van Wyck Middle School in New York City. Sloan is the author, with Warren Lehrer, of the book "Crossing the Boulevard: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America."

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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