Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Na, Na, Na

Peace Corps goal number 2: Helping promote a better understanding of
Americans on the part of peoples served.

I have been working with a group of five hand picked students on a
pretty regular basis. These five students from the 9th and 10th
grades have the highest level of English in my school of 1,400
students. They win the Olympiads, have dreams of studying in America
or England, enjoy learning English and show up on time, homework
prepared, ready to study English. When asked what they wanted to
learn in English club, one boy said, "everything." Okay, I'll try.

These kids know more about American culture than one might think.
They can tell you all about Britney Spears. They watch episodes of
South Park, Next!, Pimp My Ride, and Room Raiders on the Russian MTV.
TV programs like Lost, Scrubs, and C.S.I air nightly. From their
telephones blast ring tones of Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias, 50 cent,
Beyonce and Shakira. They ask me to translate phrases like
"Womanizer," "I'm from the hood" and "Smack That" (which I refused to
translate). I have never been the one to ask about the latest music
and I couldn't tell you who sings the songs that I used to hear daily
on the southern California radio stations. Now that I am in
Turkmenistan, it is highly likely that my students will know of
American pop-culture long before I do.

Last week, I decided to share with my students a jewel example of
American pop-culture that I had been sent over email. Out of all the
American artists out there, the one they have asked about the most is
Akon, and I happened to be in possession of an Akon song not found yet
within the borders of Turkmenistan (except for on my laptop of
course). I wanted to get them really excited about this, and blow
away all the skeptics of interactive teaching methods. Even with this
seemingly unintelligent and useless song, I was going to teach my
students grammar and phraseology. The song "Right Now (Na, Na, Na)"
has 4 verses and a chorus that goes like this: "I wanna make up right
na, na, na. I wanna make up right, na, na, na. Wish we'd never broke
up right na, na, na. We need to link up right na, na, na. (repeat)"
This song could be the only Akon song that doesn't have swear words,
uses smart examples of English language idioms and it repeats a lot so
it is relatively easy to understand. I had the students listen
through once for pure enjoyment and then it was down to work. I gave
each one a verse with words taken out and a complete copy of the
chorus (to sing along). I replayed the song and they filled in the
blanks to the best of their ability. Immediately the questions came
up. Teacher, what does "you're the apple of my eye" mean? That
doesn't make any sense. Students, Valentine's Day is coming up, and
this is the idiom you want to use on your valentine. It means that
you are my everything, that I can't see anything but you. Teacher,
what does "link up" mean? It means that we need to get together, like
a chain links (bad picture of a chain drawn on the board). Teacher,
what does "I want you to fly with me" mean? Humans can't fly, can
they? No. What can fly? Birds, airplanes. Good, it means that we
will be so in love that our hearts will be so happy that they fly off
together (bad picture of a heart with wings on the board). Heads to
the desk, pens to the paper, they madly scribble all of this down.
Valentine's Day is coming up and I happen to know all of them have a
boyfriend or girlfriend and they want to make sure they have all of
this material right. I teach them these idioms, explain how "I wanna"
is the slang version of "I want to" and how it is common for Americans
to slur the endings of words, blame it on us being lazy with speech.
We listen again for pure enjoyment, but this time everyone is singing.
They beg me to play it again, knowing they are quite possibly the
first Turkmens to hear this song. We all are tapping our feet,
nodding our heads to the rhythm, looking up occasionally from the
lyrics to make sure the others are doing the same. We sing the last
chorus with full enthusiasm, end the lesson, all out the door with it
stuck in our heads for the rest of the day na, na, na.

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