COSTA MESA, CA—More than 30 years ago, a Georgia pastor persuaded a group of Marshall Islands youths to travel 5,000 miles across the Pacific to Orange Coast College.
The students became the founders of what is now the largest emigrant Marshall Islands population outside Hawaii. And their children, cousins and relatives became the newest challenge for Orange County schools.
Today, Newport-Mesa Unified School District has 78 speakers of Marshallese to add to its Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Armenian, Farsi and Urdu speakers who need extra help with English.
“I speak six different languages and I thought I knew a lot,” said Alena Mankovecky, who coordinates the bilingual program at Costa Mesa High School. “Then I see Marshallese and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. ‘ I had to go to a map just to locate (the islands). “
She found them: an archipelago halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Costa Mesa High, across the street from Orange Coast College, has 27 speakers of Marshallese who know little English. For many kids, algebra is hard enough. But before they get to the part of isolating the X, Marshallese speakers have to first master the word “seven. “
“It was very difficult at first, trying to learn math in English, just trying to understand the teacher,” said Taruo Albious, 17, who arrived in this country two years ago. “Then things like arts and ceramics _ we don’t have these things in Marshall Islands. So that was hard, too. “
Laura Ria, an eighth-grader who has been here 3 1/2 years, remembers trying to make sense of a monstrous new language.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are they speaking? So many S’s and A’s,’ ” she said. “And those long words! How to pronounce them. In Marshallese, most words are six or seven letters long. “
Costa Mesa teachers aren’t fluent in Marshallese. So, with varying success, the students depend on help from community members, older students who have mastered English and slow, patient instruction from Donna Nelson, the English Language Development teacher who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade classes at the school.
In one class, Nelson teaches speakers of Marshallese, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese. Much of the instruction takes place in a language everyone can understand: body language.
“We hold a pencil: ‘This is a pencil. We put the pencil in the cup,’ ” she said. “We teach first basic survival: ‘Good morning,’ how to get around. By the end of the year, they’re able to make simple sentences: ‘This is a pencil; I need to go to the bathroom. ‘ “
For the sheer diversity of languages in Nelson’s class, nothing says it better than the poem that hangs on a wall. It’s called “Learning English” and appears in five languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Marshallese.
The poem is subtle encouragement for students to hang onto their languages as they learn English. Everyone says good morning in their native tongue. Once a week, the Marshallese speakers write in Marshallese, the Spanish speakers in Spanish.
The district also is working with a new Marshall Islands Consulate to bring Marshallese materials to Costa Mesa schools.
“Not just dictionaries but books that tell native stories, native crafts,” said David Kabua, Orange County consul general for the Republic of Marshall Islands.
The materials may help students make a smoother transition, Kabua said. Marshallese speakers who were born in California have had little trouble adjusting. But Kabua has watched as dozens of new arrivals struggle with a strange language.
“Many are having problems, some are barely making it,” Kabua said. “They can understand, they just have trouble communicating what they think. Others are doing OK with personal guidance and tutors and advisers. “
The principal advisers remain the students. Recently, Ria helped Wina Langrine, 12, a recent arrival, work on a computer game.
As the screen flashed the outline of U.S. states, Wina was to pick out the correct spelling.
“Texis, Tixas,” Wina pressed, each time startled by a buzzer.
Wina, who learned a little English in the Marshall Islands, is learning faster than most and is able to communicate with her teachers. She’s even learned some Spanish from her classmates and seems to delight in a growing ability to piece together the outlines of new languages.
But she’ll never forget her first reaction to Costa Mesa.
“There are a lot of students from other countries,” she said, pausing between computer screens.
“I didn’t know what they were speaking. “