Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 26, 1998
DILEMMAS IN THE L.A. SCHOOLS
Putting Education to the Test
The Bilingual Debate: Immigrants recall with pain and pride
having to learn English. Most are leery of Proposition 227.
By BETTINA BOXALL, Times Staff Writer
Simon Lee remembers the obscenities his classmates gleefully taught
him, knowing he would repeat them without comprehension. Yolanda Chavez
remembers her teacher's frustration. Marta Arevalo recalls feeling depressed,
lost and alone. Dmitry Orlov thinks of the Saturday morning Bugs Bunny
cartoons that doubled as his English class.
Childhood immigrants to California, they
all started school without bilingual programs. They were set afloat in
a sea of English with few linguistic lifeboats, an experience they now
recount with a mix of pain, pride and occasional humor. It
is an experience that also provides a flavor of what school life will be
if June's anti-bilingual-education initiative passes--although the measure
would give students help that Lee and the others did not get: a year of
intensive English instruction before being transferred into regular classes.
Most of the seven Southern Californians interviewed
for this story said they would vote against Proposition 227. Yet in their
sometimes sad, sometimes funny classroom tales can be found ammunition
for both sides of the fight over bilingual education.
"I remember being very scared,"
said Chavez, who emigrated from Mexico when she was 5 and started first
grade at a Catholic school in Los Angeles that had few Spanish-speaking
students. "I was sitting in this classroom, and the teacher was saying
things to me I didn't understand.
"I think it was a very painful experience,
when I look back at it. But it did work. And I always did well in school
Chavez went on to get a graduate degree in public policy from Columbia
University and is now chief of staff for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los
"I learned very fast, because I had
to. In a couple of months I was able to communicate," said Chavez,
who is not even sure her first teacher knew she didn't speak English. "She
didn't understand why I didn't understand what she was saying. I realize
she just thought I was slow."
Chavez's mother took note of how quickly
her daughter picked up the language of the family's adopted land. When
Chavez's U.S.-born younger sisters could not read English after several
years in a bilingual program, her mother pulled them out. "She said,
'Well, this is not working,' " and sent them to schools where they
were taught in English.
Still, Chavez opposes Proposition 227. "I
think it's poorly written," she said. "Bad public policy."
Arevalo will also vote no--with considerable
passion. One can almost detect a shudder when she speaks of her school
days after arriving from El Salvador at 11.
"It was sink or swim, and I sank for
a while," said Arevalo, regional director for the California Latino
Civil Rights Network, a statewide nonprofit group that promotes Latino
civic participation. "I can never forget that period in my life. I
was completely lost."
She attended a Catholic school in El Monte.
Her classmates teased her for not speaking English. She had no friends.
The straight A's she had earned in El Salvador turned to Ds and Cs.
"I felt like a failure," Arevalo
recalled. "Sure, I learned conversational English the first year.
But I still had to learn academic English, and that took me a long time.
"For a year or two it was extremely
difficult to go to school," she added. "And if it had not been
for an extremely supportive family, I probably would have been a dropout."
At the end of sixth grade, an older student
approached her and started speaking Spanish. The girl's words are imprinted
in Arevalo's memory: "I heard it's been hard for you. I speak Spanish.
If you ever want to talk, you can come to me."
"I just felt saved," Arevalo said.
"And she's my best friend to this day."
Fractured English Led to Humiliating Laughs
Chavez and Arevalo didn't get bilingual instruction
because they went to Catholic schools. But even in California's public
schools, only about a third of students with limited English ability are
enrolled in formal bilingual programs, often because there aren't enough
qualified bilingual teachers to go around.
There were no Korean instructors to help
11-year-old Lee when he emigrated from South Korea. His English vocabulary
consisted of "hi, bye, yes and no." He heard so much Spanish
outside of home that he initially mistook it for English.
At the Monterey Park elementary school he
briefly attended, one of the first terms his classmates taught him was
the "F-word." He and his brother tried to look it up. "It
was not in the English-Korean dictionary. So I thought we misspelled it.
I didn't know what it was for a long time."
One phrase he learned and then parroted to
everyone--including a male teacher--was "Oh, my sexy lady."
Aside from some informal English tutoring
from one of his teachers, Lee was pretty much on his own linguistically,
he recalled. It didn't take him long to understand what his instructors
were saying, but there were rough moments at the Anaheim junior high school
he attended after moving to Orange County.
When he stood before the class and gave a
book report in the seventh grade, the class erupted in laughter. "One
kid just fell off the chair laughing," Lee said. "The teacher
laughed too. It was horrible."
And there was the time he and his classmates
were asked to name the college they wanted to attend. "Habadu,"
Lee replied instantly.
The class fell into uncomfortable silence. No one could understand him.
Then the teacher figured it out. Lee meant
Harvard. Once again, he was greeted with laughter. "It really hurt
me," he said. For several years after that, he kept his college ambitions
Lee chuckles now when he recounts many of
these anecdotes. He is a survivor and would go through it all again.
"It made me a better person, more sensitive
of, and understanding of, people who are not fluent in English or culture,"
said Lee, who did get to Harvard, where he earned a law degree. "It
made me more strong. Just being able to stand up on my two feet. I got
more confidence. . . . I can take on a lot of challenges in life."
He nonetheless believes that Proposition
227 is a bad idea. Children, Lee said, should be able to choose English
immersion if they think they can handle it and, if not, they should have
the option of a bilingual program.
"I was not really that shy," he
said. "I wasn't afraid of making a lot of mistakes or having people
laugh at me. But for some kids it may be very hard, especially at a sensitive
time when peer [image] is almost everything."
Orlov, a 17-year-old Santa Monica College
student, says he was prepared for language difficulties when he arrived
from Ukraine six years ago.
"What's the big deal?" he asked.
"You are in America. You are expected to speak English. You knew when
you were going to come here you were going to have a problem because you
didn't speak English."
He arrived in summer and planted himself
in front of the television set until school began. "Saturday morning
was the biggest English class," he said with amusement. "Bugs
At his West Hollywood public school, Orlov
received English instruction a couple hours a day with limited-English
students of all ages and then returned to regular classes.
"I sort of took the philosophy that
a lot of people told me," Orlov said, "that for kids [language]
just comes. And it is true. English was the easiest thing I ever learned,
easier than Russian. With TV and everyone around you, there's no way of
He still has problems with spelling and grammar
but favors the Proposition 227 approach. "You've got to take care
of it right away," he said of conquering English. "I'm glad that
happened to me. It's better that way."
Language hurdles were more troubling for
Manuel Rodriguez, a San Diego police sergeant who left Mexico for Los Angeles
and then San Diego when he was 7.
'You Really Think You're Dumb'
"I think having the difficulties you
have gives you a low self-image," he said. "You really think
He received no help with English at home
and, during most of his early years in school, none of his teachers spoke
Spanish. As a result, Rodriguez says there is much he missed. "A lot
of the basic things you learn in the second, third, fourth grade didn't
really come through."
As an example, he says it wasn't until he
was in junior high school that he realized he should capitalize proper
He calls the move to eliminate bilingual
education unfortunate. "Intellectually, you can talk about how people
should speak English, and that sounds great in theory," he said. "But
you set up a lot of kids for failure."
At the same time, he added, "I don't
believe you carry them through 12 years of bilingual education, because
I don't think that's a good approach either. They need to be proficient
in the language of the country they are growing up in."
Jeannie Pak decided that she didn't like
English even before she got to this country at age 13. "It was too
different" from her native Korean, she said. "I dreaded coming
She began at a Downey public middle school,
where she was in English as a Second Language classes. The instruction
was in English, only at a slower pace than normal.
"Sometimes you zone out because you
don't know what they're saying," said Pak, a UCLA junior.
Like Arevalo, Pak felt isolated during her
first year in school. "I couldn't make friends," she said. "I
would cry myself to sleep."
She used her Korean dictionary a lot, picked
up English from the American-born teenagers at her Korean American church
and got so bored in the slow-moving ESL classes that she transferred into
regular courses the next year.
She has seen the type of language instruction
she wishes she had had: dual immersion, in which part of the day is devoted
to English and part to the native language. But Pak believes that even
the program typically taught in L.A. Unified--transitional bilingual education
in which the emphasis is on native-language instruction--would have been
better than what she went through.
'You Seem to Pick It Up at That Age'
Ann Lau's views are shaped by her experiences
in Hong Kong, where her Chinese refugee parents placed her in an English-only
school when she was 9.
"After three months, you seem to pick
it up at that age," said Lau, a computer consultant who immigrated
to the United States in high school. "You learn a few words. You kind
of guess what the teacher is saying without knowing the full thing. . .
. It wasn't really a bad experience," she said.
Indeed, it worked so well for her that when
her children were born in this country she deliberately taught them Chinese
and not English--on the theory that they would easily learn English when
they started school.
"I was afraid [that] if they learned
English first, they would refuse to learn Chinese," Lau said.
She is unsure how she will vote on Proposition
227 because neither supporters nor foes are pushing the type of language
instruction she considers ideal: immersing children in English but from
the beginning also teaching them their native tongue as a foreign language.
"The way bilingual [education] is taught
[here] is not the way it should be," she said. "I'm saying: Do