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Welcome to Edison, N.J.
Some 30 miles southwest of New York City, this township is known best as the home of Thomas Edison, where in his famed Menlo Park laboratory the master inventor perfected the light bulb and recorded the first sound.
But in 2008, Edison's hometown is pioneering again. Except instead of light bulbs, it's language. In a city of more than 100,000 people, nearly 18 percent of the residents are Indian American, the highest such population in the United States.
Most of the Indian students in the public school system are second-generation, and for the vast majority, their primary language is English. Few speak Hindi, the national language of India. Some of their parents may speak the language, but the children are more likely to speak English both at home and around their peers.
And while Edison residents have the opportunity to attend HindiUSA, a volunteer organization that teaches Hindi on nights and weekends, learning Hindi hasn't been an option at the two public high schools, where the only language courses are Spanish, French and Latin.
But that's all changing this year, when Edison and J.P. Stevens high schools incorporate Hindi into the curriculum this fall, a change made possible through a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It will be only the second known program in the country to offer the language.
As part of the course, Edison students will be able to communicate across cultures, working on projects with students in India via the Internet.
"The United States and India are the two largest democracies in the world," said Devendra Singh, founder of HindiUSA. "As these two democracies become closer in business and other scientific endeavors, we have to know each other's languages.
"English has become our primary language, but we also want to have this option available to students. That is our main goal."
In 2006, President Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative, a plan to further strengthen national security through the instruction of critical-need foreign languages, such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian.
While Hindi was included on that list, it wasn't deemed as a high a priority as Arabic or Mandarin, and the Edison School District was turned down in its first attempt to receive a grant from the Federal Language Assistance Program.
"The U.S. government is pushing to learn Arabic and also Chinese, and Hindi is thrown in with all those languages," Singh said. "But there's no security issue with Hindi."
Despite an unsuccessful first attempt, HindiUSA and members of the Edison community continued to voice their support for developing a Hindi program at the public schools, and the following year the program was federally approved.
The district will receive $197,500 for the grant its first year, $338,230 the second and $355,515 the third. After that, the thinking goes, the program will have the boost it needs to stay up and running for years to come.
And if the district's recent survey about foreign language courses is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem.
When polled about what language should be added to the current curriculum of Spanish, French and Latin, Edison students most commonly selected Italian, followed by Hindi and Chinese. Parents of those students were asked the same question, selecting Hindi first, Chinese second and Italian third.
"Our data suggests that there's plenty of interest," said Rose Traficante, ESD's assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction. "We'll definitely have students wanting to sign up for the course. And not only the students of Indian descent, but non-native speakers (who are) just interested in learning the language."
That's a significant difference from HindiUSA, where Singh estimates that 95 percent of the students are born to Indian parents.
"My daughter's taking German and my son is taking Spanish," Singh said. "And I expect when (Hindi) is officially offered as an elective language, many American students will take it."
When added to the curriculum this fall, Edison's two public high schools will offer introductory Hindi for ninth and 10th graders.
Neelam Mishra, an instructor for HindiUSA, has been hired to teach the course at both high schools and estimates that there will be five classes between the two schools.
Over the summer, she'll work to develop the curriculum for the first school year, focusing more on the cultural aspects of India than the reading and writing of Hindi.
"A lot of people want to learn about the culture and the background of India," Mishra said. "And now that we're starting at Edison High and J.P Stevens, this is the perfect platform for it."
HindiUSA, which is based in New Jersey but has some 25 schools scattered throughout the country, will be instrumental to the development of Edison's Hindi instruction.
Since its inception eight years ago, the organization has developed a six-level curriculum and assembled textbooks for American students, instructing pupils as young as 4 years old.
"For the introductory level, there's not too much emphasis on reading or writing," Singh said. "We play games with them in Hindi and sing in Hindi because we want to attract them to the language. Then they can start to learn the alphabet and reading and writing."
At HindiUSA, Mishra says, the way the language is taught is more informal. But now that the program is being offered at the high schools, it gives students a more structured setting and will be more in line with the way the language is taught in India. That's something Mishra and others will get to see first-hand this December, when educators and school administrators from Edison and New Delhi will participate in exchange visits and examine how languages are taught in the two countries.
While instructors will get the opportunity to travel to India, the students of Edison will be treated to international communication without having to leave their classroom, thanks to ESD's partnership with the International Education and Resource Network.
Representatives of the New York-based iEARN-USA are working with Edison to incorporate technology into the program. By linking with the online network of iEARN-India, students will be able to coordinate projects while gaining understanding of the other side's culture, learning the language at the same time.
Ed Gragert, the executive director of iEARN-USA, believes any of the 300 projects in the network can help students achieve this end. The project could be something as complex as studying water quality, or as simple as looking at a day in the life of an international peer.
"A day in the life works well because students basically go through and describe what there day is like, and that's a great jumping-off point for discussion," Gragert said. "'You don't take a bus to school? You don't have your own car?' And you're using pretty simple language."
Whatever projects the students select is up to the instructor, but the ultimate result is student-produced work that can only better their learning of the language. And while most of the interaction between American and Indian students won't be live, Gragert believes the Edison students will have greater incentive to learn Hindi with native speakers on the other end.
"When talking with real peers on real issues, they are more motivated to study because they want to express themselves better," Gragert said. "We've seen that over the years so many times. They're more motivated to learn language because they actually know they're going to use it."
In this day and age, with technology so readily available, the opportunity to work with the resources of iEARN was something that the ESD couldn't pass up.
"It's kind of seamless to the way kids communicate nowadays," said Traficante, Edison's curriculum advisor. "An opportunity to interact with students across the divide, so to speak, is a phenomenal opportunity for our kids. Being able to have a sense of connection globally, I think that's a real asset. I think kids have a natural curiosity about the world around them."
With Edison's introduction of the Hindi language program, it seems this is only the beginning. The diverse New Jersey town is already working to add Mandarin to its curriculum, and in the future, Hindi could be integrated into the lower levels of Edison's school system.
And by following the Edison example, the hope is that other communities will begin to incorporate more languages into their school systems.
"Eventually, I think the major towns will do it," Singh said. "Edison has taken a historical step and I think more and more schools will become interested in teaching Hindi."
But it won't only be Hindi.
"I'm sure there's a Mongolian community out there, Swahili, anything," Gragert said. "It will be looked at as a model, and I think the Edison School District folks are very aware of that. We have to make sure planning is done well between our two language programs and make it the best possible, because I think there are a lot of eyes on it."
As is always the case with pioneers.
*This story is from Converge magazine's Winter 2008 issue.
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