CARRBORO - Looping symbols with hovering dots and hooked accents cover a big yellow pad leaned against the chalkboard.
About 20 children sit cross-legged on a color-block rug. Their teacher, Tri Sa, says the sounds, her tone high, then low. The children repeat the pronunciations.
The students are learning Karen, a tonal language without a conventional alphabet.
Karen is outlawed in its native Myanmar. Now the immigrant families who fled their jungle villages for the United States want to make sure their freedom doesn’t cost them their culture.
It’s Wednesday night and Carrboro Elementary School is mostly empty except for four classrooms of 84 Karen children, ages 5 to 13. The free school started in October and is a branch of the new Karen Community of North Carolina, or KCNC.
More than 800 immigrants now call Carrboro and Chapel Hill home. Through their school they hope to pass their language and customs to the next generation of children, many of whom already speak fluent English, and have integrated into American public schools and its culture.
They have reason to fear losing their language.
More than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, many of which are not recorded, may disappear by 2100, according to the National Geographic Disappearing Languages project.
That breaks down to one language every 14 days.Persecution
The Karen people are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, formerly Burma. They have tried to win their independence since the late 1800s and continue to be persecuted. The Burmese government routinely burns and bombs Karen villages and the refugee camps they flee to in Thailand.
Christine Wai, 25, grew up in one of those camps.
She was born in the Hway ka lok camp, near the Burmese border. She remembers the bamboo-root hut with a roof of leaves where she lived with her parents, brother, and sister. The huts had no water or electricity and had to be rebuilt every three years because of the rainy weather.
But living there gave Wai the opportunity to freely learn to read and write her own language.
In Burma, all things Karen are banned, Wai said.
“The language is outlawed, we don’t have a school or anything,” she said. The camp she grew up in was bombed by the Burmese and no longer exists.
Wai came to Carrboro in 1999 when she was 13 years old. She quickly learned English and graduated from East Chapel Hill High School, then from Greensboro College in Greensboro with a degree in chemistry. She now works in a science lab at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine researching diabetes.
She also teaches Karen to the 12- to 13-year-old class at Carrboro Elementary on Mondays and Wednesdays and teaches Karen to native English speakers at the Chapel Hill Institute for Cultural and Language Education, or CHICLE, in Carrboro on Tuesdays.
“I think it’s very important because our language is getting lost,” Wai said. “The next generation, if they don’t keep up with the reading and writing, it will disappear.” The language
Karen is similar to Burmese and has 25 consonant clusters, nine vowels and five tones.
All of those mixed together become a word, and changing the tone changes the word’s meaning.
It’s easier to teach reading and writing the language to those who already speak it, Wai said, but it’s so different from English that it’s difficult for Americans to learn. The placement of a dot in a symbol cluster, either above or below, changes the sound and meaning of the cluster, she said.
Many Karen parents don’t know how to read and write, so children often don’t have the opportunity to learn at home, Wai said. That’s why the school is critical to preserving the language.
“We wanted our children to speak our own language,” said Shu May, whose 6-year-old son, Ronay Akbay, attends the school. “If they go back to Burma someday they can speak the language too. ... Since my child started school he stopped speaking Karen. I don’t want him to lose that.”
Learning to write Karen also helps students learn English, said Eh Tha Pwee, the school’s principal.
“They are more successful then to learn English,” he said.
Pwee came to Carrboro from Thailand in 2008 and realized many Karen in the area didn’t know how to read or write in their own language.
“We are Karen; you must speak, listen, understand, read, and write Karen,” he said. Students use a Karen dictionary, work books and textbooks.Karen culture
The school also teaches Karen children their customs and history. Students learn about traditional dress, and how to approach and address others in the community.
“For elders if someone is older than us we call them by grandfather, grandma,” said Wai. “A lot of people here, it’s hard to understand but really that’s the way the language is.”
Karen people call each other names like “older sister” or “younger brother” based on their relation to each other and the person’s seniority in their immediate family. Someone who is older than Wai would refer to her as “Day mu da,” which means younger sister who is the youngest in her family.
Students also learn about the Karen flag’s three colors: white, for purity, blue for honesty, and red for bravery. Those colors are often woven into their traditional clothes. Men and women wear shirts adorned with fringe and tassels from the neck and sleeves. Women also wear wrapped skirts with a signature tassel and both men and women carry a “Karen bag,” a colorful square side bag with tassels and fringe on the end.
The KCNC, which sponsors the Karen school for children, also offers English classes for Karen adults during the same time as the Karen language lessons.
The Karen school follows the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools calendar. Classes will end in June, when public school ends, and resume in the fall, Pwee said.
Ree Ree Wei came to Carrboro with her family in 2006 when she was 8 years old, speaking only Karen. She quickly learned how to read, write and speak English in school and is now a seventh grader at Smith Middle School and a student at the Karen school.
“I came here to learn my language again so when I grow up, I don’t forget my language and culture,” said Wei, 13.
Learning to read and write not only preserves the language and culture, but also ensures that there will continue to be Karen-speakers who can fight for their freedom in Myanmar, she said.
She still speaks Karen at home and is getting better at reading and writing it.
“I can read and pronounce it now better than my older sister; it’s really been helping me. We just want to learn our language and gain our freedom back,” Wei said. “In Burma, there’s no freedom left for the Karen, so there’s no language taught.”