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Proposition 63: Official Language

September 27, 1986

I just read the letters (Sept. 13), both pros and cons, with regard to Frank del Olmo's article (Editorial Pages, Sept. 28) on the implications of Proposition 63. As an English-as-a-second-language teacher and one who also possesses a bilingual certificate, I am naturally concerned about the fate of such a measure to make English the official language of our state.

No doubt there are areas of the country in which this initiative appears to be of no concern or an unnecessary effort. Many people are apt to vote for this measure with little knowledge of the consequences. No doubt some people think that English is already the official language of this country. Unfortunately, there are areas in this nation where passage of this proposition could result in more negative feelings toward non-native speakers of English. There is a justifiable fear, especially among Hispanics, Chinese and speakers of certain Southeast Asian languages who live in California, Texas, Florida and other states with high numbers of these minorities.

At Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, where I have taught English as a second language since 1980, I have had no less than 20 different languages spoken by my students. This mixture of sounds gives my class an international flavor. Although it is an ESL class, I often use bilingual methods and occasionally have to resort to the use of short phrases in Spanish, French, Vietnamese or Cambodian to get my points across.

I encourage my students to maintain fluency in their native languages. Recently, when I was studying Cambodian at the Buddhist Temple in Lakewood, the daughter of a friend of my wife accompanied me. She is a 13-year-old who had to leave her country before she started school and never learned to read or write Khmer. She has greater pride of her heritage now that she can read and write simple Cambodian sentences. There are many cases of Cambodian teen-agers who are unable to decipher Khmer script.

I fear that with passage of Proposition 63, mandates from the federal government and perhaps even the California Department of Education may force teachers in ESL classes to use only English as the language of instruction. I am reminded of a situation in Los Angeles not long ago that involved the reprimanding of co-workers for speaking to each other in Spanish. I personally would not enjoy having to tell my students they could not communicate with each other in their native languages while walking the hallways or helping each other in class.

My sister-in-law, who is Cambodian, does not speak English. She stays home to take care of her 3-year-old daughter. She does not have time to go to an ESL class to learn English. If Proposition 63 passes, how much will racism raise its ugly head, and will ESL classes for adults be phased out?

Let's keep English in its unofficial status as the primary language of usage in this country. Each year my ESL students know more colloquial expressions. What they need is help in reading and writing. The children are learning to speak English. Let's not put down the parents because not all of these older folks will learn to speak English fluently. When native cultures remain intact, children tend to react favorably to their past. I doubt this would continue with the passage of Proposition 63.



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