When Jee-Hye Park started sixth grade at Stowers Elementary School in September, she had just moved to California and could barely speak a word of English. As she finishes her first year of studying English, she speaks her new language, albeit sometimes haltingly.
“It’s hard,” she said, adding that sometimes her head aches from all the work she is doing, not just at her Cerritos school but also after school with her tutor. Although she is in a mainstream class with fluent English speakers, not all her instruction is in English. Every day, she and the four other non-English speakers in class spend time with a Korean-speaking aide.
Like many language learners, she understands English better than she speaks it. But even words she knows can be hard to pronounce. Words with the “th” sound are challenging. So are words with “r” in them. A basic sentence, like asking her non-Korean-speaking teacher if she can be excused to go to the bathroom, can become tricky.
But in spite of her progress, Jee-Hye is living proof of one thing — learning English isn’t easy. And her struggle, as well as that of the approximately 1.8 million other children in the state not fluent in English, has been under particular scrutiny this year.
That is because 1998-99 will go down in California history as the year when the state decided to change the way it taught its non-English-speaking students. It was the testing year for the tenets imposed by Proposition 227.
Had Jee-Hye started at Stowers just a year earlier, things would have been different. She would have been taught science and history and other subjects in Korean while slowly being introduced to English, an educational approach known as “bilingual education.”
But Proposition 227, passed by 61 percent of voters last June, put an end to bilingual education. The new law requires districts to teach all their students in English “nearly all” the time.
Under the law, non-English-speaking students do have the option of returning to a bilingual class after a month, but Jee-Hye did not choose that path. Nor, according to Stowers principal Michael McCoy, did the majority of English learners at the school.
Pointing to students who had spent years in bilingual classes without learning English, 227 proponents claimed it would be better to dismantle bilingual education in favor of English immersion. Immersion would mean that most of a student’s school day would be in English, with help, if needed, in his or her native tongue.
But the proposition drew a lot of criticism from such groups as the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, who said it discriminated against non-English speakers.
It also drew criticism from school district officials, who said three months (from the time of the election to the beginning of the 1998-99 school year) would not be enough time to completely redesign the way they taught their non-English speakers.
When the school year began, most local districts, including ABC, Bellflower, Norwalk and Downey, had hastily assembled programs in place. Long Beach Unified, however, did not begin its program until February 1999. Long Beach Superintendent Carl Cohn, backed by the school board, said the district would not disobey the law — however, it could not comply with it by the imposed deadline.
But politics aside, how easy is learning English, anyway? It depends, linguists say, on how different your native tongue is from the hodgepodge of Latin, Germanic and romance dialects known as the modern English language.
Korean qualifies as being very different, linguists say.
For one thing, there are sounds English speakers use that do not exist in Korean, said CSU Dominguez Hills professor Steven Lee.
Lee heads a program that teaches teachers how to teach English to Korean speakers.
“V sounds are not native,” Lee said. “They do not exist.”
Neither, Lee explains, do “th” sounds, nor “ph” or any “f” sounds.
Korean speakers usually also have difficulty pronouncing the letter “r” in the English way. There is an “r” sound in Korean, but it is softer, somewhere inbetween an English “l” and “r,” Lee said.
But that doesn’t mean students like Jee-Hye will never be able to master those sounds.
“Children tend to have an easier time making that adjustment (to English sounds),” Lee said.
Another difference between English and Korean is the way sentences are structured. An English speaker structures a sentence subject-verb-noun, as in “I went home.” However, a Korean speaker structures a sentence subject-noun-verb, as in “I home went.”
Added to all that, Korean uses its own alphabet, with 40 phonetic letters, quite unlike the 26 letters English speakers use. Students like Jee-Hye have to, essentially, learn to read and write all over again.
But that doesn’t mean English isn’t challenging to those who speak another European language, like Spanish, language teachers say. Spanish may use the same alphabet as English, but there are several phonetic and grammatical differences, since English has Germanic roots and Spanish has Latinate roots.
For instance, although the letter “h” exists in Spanish, it is silent. The closest Spanish comes to an “h” sound is in the way Spanish speakers pronounce the letter “g.”
Like Korean speakers, Spanish speakers also have particular trouble with “th” sounds.
“They have problems with digraphs,” said Burcham Elementary fourth-grade teacher Nathan Cuellar. Digraphs, Cuellar explains, are sounds combining two consonants, usually th or ph, or sc.
But unlike Korean, which has no sound resembling “th,” there is a parallel in Spanish, said CSU Long Beach associate professor Gloria Rubio.
Rubio, like Lee, works with teachers who are teaching English. Unlike Lee, however, Rubio trains teachers who will be teaching Spanish speakers.
Spaniards, Rubio said, pronounce the letter “z” as “th,” even though most Latin Americans, including Mexicans and Central Americans, do not.
Another difference between English and Spanish is that a Spanish sentence uses more prepositions. For example, the sentence “I went home” would be “I went to home” in Spanish.
Eight-year-old Elizabeth Vasquez, a second-grader at Burcham Elementary School in Long Beach. has been working hard to overcome these linguistic differences for the past two years.
The native of Colima, Mexico, is almost fluent in English, although, every now and then, she will lapse into her native tongue.
“I really like learning English,” she said.
Elizabeth began at Burcham in October 1997. She had gone to school in Mexico before that and had learned her letters, but was by no means proficient in English. On the district’s English proficiency scale, she was an “A” said her teacher, Kathleen Rapp. An “A” student has little or no English language proficiency, while an “F” student is considered fluent.
Now, Elizabeth is a C or even a D, Rapp said. She has impressed Rapp with her eagerness to learn the language, particularly when it comes to reading in it.
One of the ways Rapp gets her class of English learners to read in an unfamiliar language is by activating the closed-captioning feature when she shows them videos. The children read the dialogue, and learn how difficult words look as well as sound.
But Elizabeth wasn’t content with just having such an experience in the classroom. She asked her teacher to show her how closed captioning works, so she can read along when she is watching videos at home.
A big part of Elizabeth’s willingness to go to such lengths has to do with her general love of reading in any language. She likes to read so much, she said, she does it “until my head hurts.”
But no matter how fluent she may be becoming, Elizabeth will continue in a class with other English language learners next year.
The same is true for Jee-Hye. In spite of her progress this year, Jee-Hye has work to do before she reaches fluency, said her teacher, Colette Ellis. This means Jee-Hye will continue getting help with her English when she begins middle school in the fall.
But the sixth-grader seems optimistic that there won’t be as many headaches next year.
“Now it is a little, little bit easier for me,” she said.
Proposition 227 requires that all public school instruction be conducted in English (unless the child already knows English or would learn English faster through an alternate instruction technique). It provides for initial short-term placement (about a year) in English immersion programs for children not fluent in the language. It allows parents and guardians to sue district administrators for enforcement. And it appropriates $50 million annually for 10 years to fund English tutoring programs.