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THE STATE

A Crude Way to Teach Asian Pacific Americans English

April 19, 1998|Victoria Lee-Jerrems and Ellen Wu | Victoria Lee-Jerrems and Ellen Wu are researchers at the UCLA Asian American Education Research Project of the school's Asian American Studies Center

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 their self-esteem. 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 skills. 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.

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