San Francisco Examiner

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Immigrants Want to Learn English - and Keep Their Mother Tongue

The issues of bilingual education are raging again.

On the one side are the English-only people led by Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur-multimillionaire who is pushing an "English for the Children" initiative on the June ballot in California.

On the other, ardent advocates of bilingual education demand wholesale adoption of bilingualism with little accountability.

At stake are the many millions of dollars in federal funds that could affect the lives of more than the 1.3 million students in California who have limited proficiency in English.

Certainly we can all agree on the premise that all immigrants coming to the United States need to learn English. Thus the hue and cry for ending bilingual education often hinges on reports of lack of progress in English and certain standardized test scores by children enrolling in those programs.

Yet little is said of the real underlying fear of the English-only proponents.

Could it be possible that in an increasingly balkanized America, the promotion of multiculturalism serves to accelerate the "browning of America" and create a nation of many languages?

Nothing is further from the truth.

No matter what ethnic community I come across, English seems to be the preferred language. As I walk through the Mission District, through the smattering of different languages, I hear English spoken predominantly.

There are whole generations of Vietnamese out there for whom English is the only language. Even Vietnamese gangs swear at each other in English, loud and clear.

So, contrary to the argument that the concept of a melting pot in America has been under attack and no longer holds much consideration in today's sociology, it is arguably valid and has been at work, surreptitiously perhaps, but influential and effective.

While advocating for bilingualism and appreciating the importance of such a program for the English language learners, many immigrants, including myself, do not adhere completely to the scope and method of bilingual education as currently prescribed.

I would like to stake my case on a little acknowledged aspect of bilingualism and biculturalism - the need for continued development of a learner's mother tongue as well as English.

The lack (or suppression) of concurrent primary language development may not manifest itself in the learner's formative years, when it could be remedied. It will certainly come back to haunt him or her later in life when the desire to learn one's mother tongue is thwarted or becomes daunting.

Stories abound in my community - as I'm sure in other ethnicities - of persons whose lives are adversely affected by their inability to speak their own language.

My sister was bilingual at the age of 10, having learned Vietnamese in her childhood years in Vietnam. She went on to live in France with our uncle (whose children are half French) for five years. There she spoke French and Vietnamese until her arrival in America where, in an atmosphere of monolingual phobia, she was taunted and ridiculed. She would come home crying. She soon discarded her first and second languages.

Now an English-only speaker unable to speak and function in the Vietnamese milieu, she shuns all things Vietnamese.

When I spearheaded the Vietnamese language program at UC-Berkeley, many of the Vietnamese students had come to the United States at an early age and spoke only English. Some complained to me that later arrivals, fluent in Vietnamese, had poked fun at them and called them names.

I remember as a young, apprehensive Vietnamese teenager going to a mostly white American public school in the mid-'70s, I was worried about my being accepted there rather than having any gumption about my rights as a bilingual student.

I didn't understand the concept of bilingual education, let alone realize the impact it would have on me, my psyche and my education. On many nights, in a dark and lonely corner of my room where I lived with my Caucasian guardians, I would shed bitter tears, imploring God that I soon would learn to speak English fluently enough to defend against the taunts and attacks from my mean-spirited schoolmates.

The Vietnam war or, rather, its aftermath, you see, was my reason for being in America. It was also the raison d'etre for all the verbal and, yes, even physical attacks I endured.

Should I consider myself and other fellow refugees a token gesture of American noblesse oblige or the unwanted offspring of the failed American involvement? In either case, I'd opted to "go quietly amid the noise and haste" of American self-imposed amnesia regarding Vietnam.

In those days, I didn't hear about a single legal precedent that ensured bilingual education implementation, and thus the attendant controversy. Not Lau vs. Nichols (the San Francisco Board of Education) in 1974 or Idaho Migrant Council vs. Board of Education in 1981 or Jorge Gomez vs. Illinois State Board of Education in 1987.

All I was doing was trying hard to acquire the new language just as my parents' generation acquired French and their parents and grandparents acquired Chinese.

Vietnamese, after all, are supposed to be a resilient people. And throughout the ages, we had to endure different impositions placed on us and, by necessity, had to fulfill. Yet the glue that has held us together is the Vietnamese language, the commonality that all of us share and makes us proud of our identity, no matter how battered it is.

I am sure this is the case for speakers of other languages besides English. But perhaps more important than the path one takes to become acculturated in America is the ability to feel good about oneself as a completely bilingual-bicultural person in a world that (if not already) should realize the importance and benefits of multiculturalism.

Thus for the sake of the nation's output, instead of denying many communities the opportunity to learn their mother tongues, we should encourage them to grow cross-culturally so that they can become full functioning constituents, enriching American society.

Examiner contributor Thai Nguyen-Khoa teaches history in the San Francisco Unified School District. A certified translator, he writes fiction and poetry in Vietnamese.