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Schools Helping Viet Youths Learn Parents' Tongue


Second-generation Vietnamese Americans who want to better know the language of their parents are creating a surge in Vietnamese classes in high school--and the need for new textbooks, educators say.

Statewide enrollment in Vietnamese-language courses has more than doubled in the last five years, school officials say. The demand comes from children of Vietnamese immigrants who may understand their parents' native tongue but cannot speak it.

"It's sometimes hard to speak with my grandma because I may not know the right words to finish my sentence, so I have to use English words," said 12-year-old Mai Tran of Garden Grove, who is looking ahead to high school with the language courses in mind. "It would be pretty cool to learn more Vietnamese."

Among high schools starting Vietnamese language courses this fall are Bolsa Grande and La Quinta in Garden Grove. Westminster High School's 3-year-old program has tripled to serve more than 100 students with the addition of intermediate and advanced courses.

California schools teaching Vietnamese now use the four-book series "Vietnamese for Vietnamese Speakers," which was commissioned in 1993 by Nguyet Dinh, a language programs administrator at San Jose's East Side Union High School District.

But the series is badly out of date.

The state last adopted language texts in 1991 but "a lot has happened in that time," said Jean James, a state Department of Education program consultant who leads the state's effort to adopt foreign-language textbooks.

To meet that need, Dinh has hired Vietnamese American scholars to update the texts. The second edition will then be sold to school districts nationwide.

"We wanted to work with Vietnamese scholars who had experience in teaching literature and language in Vietnam and who understand the Vietnamese American experience," Dinh said. "These scholars are rare.''

The revision is intended to make the texts more accessible to contemporary Vietnamese Americans who want to learn the language of their parents but do not share the same cultural experiences.

The older texts, for example, included references assuming that youths would ask their parents' permission before eating dinner. The updated texts will delete these items to reflect the more Americanized customs of many Vietnamese American families.

Quyen Di, 54, a former high school principal, Vietnamese university instructor and youth magazine editor in Vietnam, is one of the two scholars working on the project. Di owns and operates a small printing shop in Garden Grove as a "practical" occupation to pay the bills. Academic work has been hard to find since he came to the United States in 1978, he said.

"I started the printing shop because I needed to find a job with a steady income," Di said. "But I savor any work that has to do with the Vietnamese language," such as teaching.

Di is rewriting lessons and tossing out entire sections from the older materials to create more consistency among chapters and levels of complexity in the new texts. He travels at least three times a month to San Jose to test lessons and train teachers to use the revised textbooks.

"Every time I have an opportunity to work on this textbook, I do it," Di said. "When I help San Jose, it will help other school districts ... because these are the only textbooks available to teach native speakers."

Huynh Dinh Te, 73, of Downey was commissioned to edit the revised texts and write the four-page curriculum guideline on which the learning materials are based.

"Having the proper textbooks to teach Vietnamese grammar and language has not been a priority for many public schools," said Te, who received his doctorate in language and communication from Columbia University after immigrating to the United States. Now retired, he was a college professor in Vietnam before teaching at Cal State Long Beach, UC Irvine and Chapman University.

Without the work of these men, Vietnamese American students would be struggling to recover the language of their parents and grandparents, said language specialist KimOanh Nguyen-Lam of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research in Long Beach.

"These scholars are willing to write these textbooks ... because this is their passion and they know younger students can benefit," she said.

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