San Francisco Examiner

Friday, May 1, 1998

No on 227: Ron Unz Flunks

MY OWN struggle to learn English is a testimony: It actually takes more than a year to learn, especially to comprehend and articulate.

When I emigrated from South Korea to a small town in Connecticut at age 8, I knew only how to say, "I don't know how to speak English," and, "Thank you."

I experienced every day the frustration, resentment and fears of living in an English-only community and school.

I was mute and sat at my desk, frozen, but I tried to smile. The following year, I was placed in a remedial English class. The teacher spoke only English, but slowly.

The next year, I was integrated with the other students, even though I did not grasp even basic English grammar. Due to my high academic achievements in Korea and expectations, I was deeply ashamed whenever I received my English exercises covered with red X's.

I was humiliated every time it was my turn to read aloud. The other children laughed at my mispronunciations and Korean accent. I thought I would never learn to speak English.

These moments of failure, in addition to my inability to understand my mistakes and other children's lack of sympathy, did not motivate me to practice English with diligence.

To regain self-pride, I focused on skills in which I already excelled. Children crowded around my desk as I multiplied and divided when they were still struggling with addition. They crowded around as I sketched detailed portraits of people's faces while they were still drawing stick figures. They never crowded around, however, to hear me tell stories.

Before going to sleep, my sisters and I would speak gibberish, pretending to be fluent in English. Throughout most of my elementary education, I flipped through pages of books, pretending to read and understand English.

Eventually, I learned how to speak English primarily through watching a lot of sitcoms on TV. I stopped speaking Korean to my parents since this language brought shame in my English-only community. Losing my home language, even though I was not confident with my fluency in English, led me to distrust words in expressing my thoughts and experiences.

Although I graduated from UC-Berkeley with a degree in social sciences in 1997, I continue to mumble and speak quietly, hoping that nobody will hear my mispronunciations and grammatical errors.

Learning English should not be an experience of embarrassment, humiliation and fear. To enable immigrant children to appreciate learning English, and to learn it without necessarily endangering their ability to speak their home language, bilingual education is necessary.

Without ever visiting a bilingual education class and without talking to students in bilingual programs, millionaire Republican Ron Unz commissioned and financed Proposition 227, which he entitled "English for the Children." It proposes one-year intensive training for all children with limited proficiency in English.

If Unz had bothered to talk to someone like me, he would have learned what the research shows: 70 percent of all students in English-only programs are doing poorly.

In a country where our voice determines perceptions of our intelligence, character and worth, children must have an opportunity to learn English as a bridge, not as a cause for silence.

Examiner contributor Yunjong Suh is a 1997 graduate of UC-Berkeley.