By HARRY MOK
Blast San Francisco Bureau
My brothers and sister could be poster kids for Proposition 227, the
California ballot initiative that would end bilingual education in the
My parents, my two brothers and my sister immigrated to the United
States from China in 1966 and moved to a rural Northern California town
where my maternal grandparents lived. Not knowing a word of English, my
siblings were sent to school.
"I just sat there. Eventually I figured out she (the teacher) wanted us
to copy something from the board," my sister said of her first day in an
American school. "If the rest of the class stood up to do the Pledge of Allegiance, I just stood up with them but didn't know what they were saying."
|"If the rest of the class stood up to do the Pledge of Allegiance, I just stood up with them but didn't know what they were saying," my sister said.
It was a scary experience, but my sister said it was made easier by an
understanding teacher who even took time out after school to help the
rest of the family learn English as well.
Back then there weren't many bilingual programs and there certainly
weren't any in Cantonese in this tiny school district.
But if you ask my second-oldest brother today, it didn't matter. "I
didn't need (bilingual education) when I was in school."
He has a point. My siblings all excelled without the benefit of
bilingual education. They all got good grades and they all graduated
from college. In fact, my sister said it only took her about six months
to get a handle on English.
Proposition 227 would prohibit teaching in any language other than
English. Children who are not fluent in English would go through a year
of intensive programs in English. After that, they would be assigned to
regular classes. Parents who want instruction in another language for
their children would have to apply for a waiver in person, but the
school would have to offer it only if there were 20 other waiver
applications in the same grade level.
|"Our fluency has dropped to the point that we can barely order a meal at a
restaurant in Chinatown."
I can only imagine what it was like for my brothers and sister when they
first moved to this country. I came along a couple of years after my
family emigrated and grew up speaking English and Cantonese at home.
When they moved to this country, my siblings were all in late grade
school and junior high, a rough time no matter what language you use. I
can picture them sitting in a classroom, the only Asian kids, feeling
isolated and intimidated in this strange, foreign land. I can't even
fathom how difficult that early period was for them, trying to learn
English cold turkey.
If the bilingual education opponents' intent is to pound English
into non-native speakers, then at least in our family that strategy has
worked. We kids all speak to each other in English only and for the most
part, only speak Cantonese when talking to our parents, who don't speak
In my earliest memories, I spoke Cantonese and English with equal
fluency. But as I got older and the rest of my family spoke less and
less Cantonese, so did I. English became my primary language.
It's not to say that people shouldn't learn English if they live here.
But, at least in my family, it has come at a cost.
While my siblings and I still speak Cantonese to our parents, our
fluency has dropped to the point that we can barely order a meal at a
restaurant in Chinatown. This also makes communication with my parents
difficult. I can't fully explain things to them. I can't tell them
what's happening in my life. I can't really go to them for advice.
In some cities like San Francisco, bilingual classes for English and
non-English speakers are popular. English speakers learn Cantonese,
French, Spanish and other languages. The non-native speakers learn
English and help their peers learn another language. This flies in the face
of the overwhelming support for Prop. 227, which some polls say will
pass with 70 percent of the vote on June 2.
|"English speakers learn Cantonese, French, Spanish and other languages. The non-native speakers learn English and help their peers learn another language."
The debate over bilingual education is complicated and emotional. It
just seems to me that being bilingual is an asset and not something that
should be feared.
Being able to speak Cantonese is the key that opens the door to
understanding the culture that my parents came from. So far, I haven't
been able to use that key. It seems like Proposition 227 could help shut
the door for immigrant children growing up now.