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Orange County

Vietnamese Classes Set a New Course

Education: Garden Grove Unified offers language instruction at two high schools this fall. Some see it as a chance to bridge a generation gap.

September 22, 2002|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a reason Peter Nguyen wants to improve his Vietnamese. The high school senior from Garden Grove can't seem to win an argument with his Vietnamese immigrant parents.

"They have an advantage over me because they speak the language," said Nguyen, 17, who understands Vietnamese but can barely speak it. "I don't have the vocabulary to express my side."

That's about to change.

He is enrolled in Bolsa Grande High School's first Vietnamese class. The course is part of a pilot program Garden Grove Unified School District officials hope to develop into a regular elective on par with the district's French, Spanish and Latin programs.

The district introduced the course this semester at Bolsa Grande in Garden Grove and La Quinta High in Westminster after years of lobbying by parents and students.

Despite that interest, and the largest Vietnamese American student population in the nation--28%, or about 11,000 students--school officials were concerned in early summer that the Bolsa Grande class wouldn't attract enough students. Only 18 had enrolled by July, whereas La Quinta had 30, the minimum required.

The problem, officials now say, might have been a lack of advertising and that incoming freshmen didn't sign up until August. Word got out in local newspapers and on a Vietnamese language radio station. By the time school started, Bolsa Grande had 35 students, and La Quinta 's roster had grown to 37.

Nguyen and his Vietnamese American classmates say learning the language is a way to bridge the cultural gap with their parents. It is also a chance to strengthen their heritage.

"For me," said Mylynn Tran, 14, a freshman, "because of my Asian background, not knowing the language--it was kind of sad."

Vietnamese parents and students had clamored for such a course since the mid-1980s. Westminster High School was the first to respond, in 1999. The Huntington Beach Union High School District school now has more than 100 students studying Vietnamese and offers advanced-level courses.

Garden Grove school officials hope to offer advanced courses eventually, but starting a foreign language course from scratch can be daunting.

"I told the students during the first day of class, 'While you are learning, I'll also be learning,' " said Hannah Nguyen, Bolsa Grande High's Vietnamese teacher.

Nguyen, 31, is also an English teacher at the school. She came to the United States from Vietnam at the age of 1. She learned Vietnamese at home and at church while growing up. Providing classes at school, she said, gives more students the opportunity to learn the language.

One student taking that opportunity is Jaime Garcia, 14, who is one of a few non-Vietnamese pupils in the class.

"We live in a community where there are a lot of Vietnamese people," Jaime, whose parents are from Mexico, told his classmates. "When I get a job that I can help people, I want to be able to speak their language and understand their culture."

The class paused for a beat, and broke into applause.

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