Language Issue Hits a Chord

EDUCATION: The debate over Proposition 227 is likely to bring out the voters in the Vietnamese community.

WESTMINSTER – Vietnamese-Americans send their children to Hong Bang language center to learn their native tongue and stay in touch with their cultural heritage.

They also want to make sure that the children learn English.

In recent weeks, some of them have been mulling the division of labor between the private school their offspring attend on weekends and the public school they attend during the week.

The issue has been pushed to the forefront of the Vietnamese education agenda by the debate on Proposition 227, which would curtail bilingual education in California.

Vietnamese-Americans are weighing in on talk shows and in casual conversations based on their experiences as immigrants and those of their children in public schools. A community forum on the initiative is scheduled for today.

Hong Bang pupil Suong Phan, 10, was 4 when she came to the United States in 1993 with her parents.

Learning English was never a problem for her. She started kindergarten at Dr. Jessie Hayden Elementary School in Midway City and learned quickly.

“If you put them in bilingual classes, their attention gets divided,” said Suong’s father, Mien Phan, 56, a machinist from Westminster.

He brings Suong to the Sunday school so she can learn what she won’t at a public school.

“They should remember the Vietnamese language, so they can remember their roots and culture,” said Phan, a South Vietnamese Army official who was in a communist re-education camp for 13 years.

Tony Vu Truong’s mother, Ngan Pham, faced different circumstances when she came to the United States in 1991. Her son was already 6.

Tony spent second, third and fourth grades in Santa Ana’s Washington Elementary School bilingual education classrooms. It would have been disastrous for her son not to have had that opportunity, said Ngan Pham, 50, of Santa Ana.

“Besides (having) low self-esteem, he would have been afraid of school and may not be in school today,” she said. “It’s very tough for newcomers to blend in America. … So, if you help them, you should help them all the way.”

On a recent Sunday, Tony, who was in a classroom on a perfect-weather-for-the-beach afternoon, took a sip from a can of Sprite, folded his arms to brave the nippy air conditioning and settled in for the second half of class.

It was 2:30 p.m. and a 15-minute recess at the Hong Bang Vietnamese language center at La Quinta High School had just ended. The teacher had returned a graded test on Vietnamese literature, poetry and history.

On this day, Tony was one of about 425 pupils trading their Sunday afternoons for cultural values at the language center.

“This school has helped me learn my language,” said Tony, 14. “I forget some words, but I learned to write better (Vietnamese).”


Hong Bang is quietly providing a healthy dose of Vietnamese heritage through the many doctors, attorneys, teachers and postal workers who volunteer to teach weekends. It is one of about 25 Vietnamese language centers in Orange County.

“We teach them how to behave in Vietnamese culture at home,” said teacher Nam Dinh, a postal worker.

Parents pay $80 a year per child for a year’s tuition and supplies. Most of the money goes toward rent.

All of Julie Dung Nguyen’s kindergartners rise when the principal enters the room. They have been taught to show respect for elders and teachers, says Principal Ngoc Huynh.

“We’re teaching them what they don’t learn in English schools,” she said.

This day, Nguyen is reviewing the Vietnamese alphabet with her kindergartners. She uses hand gestures, association and repetition to stress the accent on letters to help her fidgety pupils take notice.

The method is similar to one she uses to help teach English during weekdays to other elementary school pupils.

Besides being a real estate agent, Nguyen is also a bilingual teacher’s aide at Cecil B. DeMille Elementary School in Westminster.

Teaching pupils Vietnamese at Hong Bang does not slow their process of learning English at public schools, she said.

“They’re young, and I think they can speak both languages and they do really good,” Nguyen said. But most of her Vietnamese pupils at DeMille school feel more at ease learning English with her help, she said.

“When the kids first come to the school, they really feel isolated,” said Nguyen, 41. “All the time they come up to me and talk to me. … At the beginning of the year I speak a lot of Vietnamese, but slowly I speak more English than Vietnamese.”


Calls lighted up the switchboard at Saigon Radio FM/106.3 when Xuyen Dong-Matsuda recently moderated a Prop. 227 talk show. A majority of about 15 callers voiced opposition to the measure. Many callers could not be accommodated during the two-hour broadcast, which included panelists’ discussion on the subject, Dong-Matsuda said.

“I sense the urgency in the community,” said Dong-Matsuda, an Orange County mental health specialist. “People do care. This hits home for some people because they care for their kids’ education and also they care about their own identity and future immigrants.”

One caller supported the initiative because he said it furthers immigrant assimilation in society.

Most of those who opposed the measure told how their children benefited from bilingual education, Dong-Matsuda said. Others said they didn’t want their children to be ashamed of their native tongue and identity as Vietnamese if English became the sole language of instruction in public schools, she said.

The show is not necessarily representative of the way the Vietnamese community will vote June 2, she said. No opinion polls or surveys to determine how the community will vote have been conducted.

But the initiative strikes an emotional chord with immigrants and will drive the Vietnamese to the polls in large numbers, Dong-Matsuda predicted.

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