SOME of the people with the loudest voices in the debate over bilingual education have no experience — as bilingual students. Here’s the story of a young woman who didn’t speak English when she came to the United States. Today, Essie Chan is a senior at San Francisco State University and works part time at ANG Newspapers.

Chan’s parents brought their five children to the United States when she was 8 years old.

They moved to Oakland because her mother’s sister lived here. They spoke Cantonese and no English.

“I had no experience with the English language at all,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was going on around me.”

She was put in a nonbilingual second-grade class at Bella Vista elementary school.

“I remember some testing. I copied the other kids on the English and they copied me on the math,” Chan says. She also remembered being pulled out of the regular classroom for instruction in simple English phrases. However, the teacher didn’t speak Cantonese.

“I had no idea what they were saying. Basically, I don’t remember much of anything from the second grade. I don’t know what I did to pass the time. I do remember I felt very much alone.”

The next year the family moved to Chinatown and Chan was enrolled at Lincoln Elementary. “The teacher was Chinese, Mrs. How. She taught in English and explained in Chinese. I started learning and learning English.”

She spent one year at Lincoln and then returned to Bella Vista for the fourth grade. “It was challenging for me. The teacher wasn’t bilingual and I had little skill in English. It was hard that year. I stuck with the Chinese kids who spoke Cantonese. Today, we’re still friends. At some point I started picking up English skills, I think from the other kids.”

As difficult as it was for Chan, she says she never became discouraged. “It never entered my mind that I wanted to quit. Even when I didn’t know what was going on at school, I never thought about quitting. I don’t know how I passed to the next grade.

“In the fifth grade I had Mrs. Holly and she was the best.” Her teacher was African American and didn’t speak Cantonese. “She encouraged us to learn. She gave us stars and stickers and if you were good in math, she encouraged you in math and gave you advanced work.”

That was a turning point for Chan. Her sixth grade teacher, Mr. Jackson, also African American, was another inspiring teacher. “By the end of the sixth grade, I was still behind in my English. But I knew what I had to do to catch up.”

In junior high school, she was put into several English as a Second Language classes. “But they weren’t really helpful. I didn’t feel the teachers were doing a good job and I didn’t learn much.”

“At some point, I learned English. And by the ninth grade, I was in the regular English classes.”

Although she graduated from high school and is in her last year at SF State — majoring in computer information systems, minoring in Asian-American studies — she still feels she has gaps in English. “Particularly in grammar. I never learned the structure of the language. Verbally I’m fine, but sometimes I have difficulties writing papers.”

Now, Chan wishes she had more schooling in Cantonese. She can understand and hold a social conversation, but she finds it difficult to express her thoughts and feelings in her native language.

“I don’t read or write Chinese. I only know about 10 percent of the characters. I think it’s too late to learn Cantonese now. The time to really learn is in school. I wish I had done some things a little differently.”

“If you are a newcomer, I believe you have to be taught by someone who speaks your native language, to make the associations between English and your language. Someone has to be a bridge. It takes time to learn a language. The Unz initiative (Proposition 227) won’t work because you can’t learn English in one year.”

Brenda Payton writes for ANG Newspapers.

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