Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 19, 1998
A Crude Way to Teach Asian Pacific Americans English
By VICTORIA LEE-JERREMS, ELLEN WU
Myth: All Asian Pacific American students
are spelling-bee champions and science-fair winners possessing 4.0 grade
point averages and 1600 SATs.
Reality: Many Asian Pacific American students
struggle with the most basic of subjects, especially English. According
to the 1997 Language Census report for California public schools, 40% of
all Asian Pacific American children are designated as Limited-English Proficient.
The Unz initiative, which would effectively
end the state's bilingual programs, threatens to add to the numbers of
Asian Pacific American who speak limited English with its one-size-fits-all
prescription of immersion in English. Equally troubling, the results of
the immersion approach on Asian Pacific Americans are unknown. Indeed,
this method has not been tested thoroughly. Fortunately, there are more
culturally sensitive alternatives to immersion.
Asian American children hail from a wide
range of backgrounds: More than 300 languages and dialects are spoken among
34 ethnic groups, including Chinese, Hmong, Koreans, Cambodians, Laotians
and Vietnamese. Many of them must make difficult cultural adjustments after
experiencing the traumas of war and relocation camps at home. Encouraging
them to use their native language during these trying periods can enhance
Gay Wong, a bilingual-education specialist,
emphasizes the need for "building up, not tearing down" the home
language and culture in the classroom in order to be "positively supportive"
of children's "self-concept building."
Requiring these children to leave their native
tongues at the doors of their classrooms is thus more than an academic
matter. It makes a difficult cultural adjustment that much harder without
any reliable gain in English skills to offset the added emotional turmoil.
The goal of the Unz initiative is indisputable--to
prepare students to function as productive members of society. The problem
is its method, which flies in the face of a landmark court ruling.
On Jan. 21, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled, in Lau vs. Nichols, that schools must
provide students with "a meaningful opportunity to participate in
the public educational program" in accordance with the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, including appropriate bilingual-bicultural classroom instruction.
The lawsuit was brought by 12 non-Anglophone
Chinese Americans against the San Francisco Unified School District. The
Unz initiative defies the underlying principles of the Lau ruling, potentially
denying thousands of Asian Pacific American children the most effective
routes to obtaining academic proficiency in the English language.
Previous to the Lau ruling, the San Francisco
Unified School District largely ignored the educational needs of its limited-English
students. Many parents complained that their children were "doomed
. . . to become dropouts and to join the rolls of the unemployed."
Indeed, juvenile-delinquency rates in the
city's Chinese community rose 600% between 1964-1969. The Unz initiative's
indiscriminate approach to the limited-English problem among immigrant
students may similarly discourage young Asian Pacific Americans, pushing
many of them to drop out of school.
There are alternatives to the Unz initiative,
Proposition 227 on the June ballot. One is to preserve local control of
education. Parents and teachers know firsthand the linguistic frailties
of limited-English students. Since the learning styles of children differ
in such subjects as mathematics and science, why treat English any differently?
Another option is to improve and expand current
bilingual-bicultural programs. Bilingual elementary teachers and administrators
in the Los Angeles Unified School District have observed that fluency in
students' primary languages can help them learn English faster.
One such educator is Adeline Shoji, advisor
to Koreatown's Cahuenga Elementary School, which offers immersion programs
in Korean and English. Shoji prefers bilingual education because she believes
it helps the intellectual development of children by sharpening their primary-language
Although limited-English students may be
able to converse in English, she says, it's a "front" language,
since their reading and writing skills are "less secure" because,
"cognitively, that part [of the brain] doesn't develop at the same
rate nor to the same fullness."
Shoji encourages Asian Pacific American parents
to consider bilingual-bicultural education as a long-term investment that
will increase their children's chances for success in college and beyond.
For example, since most U.S. universities
require foreign-language skills for admittance, students who nurture their
primary language will have an advantage. Fluency in languages other than
English is also an asset in international trade and economic development,
particularly in the Pacific Rim. Students who are proficient in languages
in addition to English will increase their chances for securing employment
and furthering their careers.
Asian Pacific American children need English-language
skills to succeed, but they should not be left vulnerable to programs that
reduce cultural and linguistic complexity to simple-minded notions of how
best to learn English.
Jo-Ann Adefuin, Kay Dumlao, Leslie Ito, and Elaine Kuo also contributed
to this article. Victoria Lee-Jerrems and Ellen Wu Are Researchers at the
Ucla Asian American Education Research Project of the School's Asian American