Thinking about the so-called Unz Initiative, the California anti–bilingual education measure on the June 2 ballot–has dredged up embarrassing memories for me.

As a 17-year-old freshman at the University of California at Berkeley in 1958, I had to take “bonehead English.” Its nickname says it all–bonehead, dumbo, dunce. It was for freshmen who couldn’t pass an English-language exam. It was remedial English.

How could this be I wasn’t some F.O.B. (fresh off the boat). I was an A.B.C. (American-born Chinese). I spoke, read and wrote English far better than I did Chinese. I was almost a straight-A student in my high school where English was the only language of instruction except in foreign-language courses (Spanish and French). I wrote sports articles for the school newspaper and was editor of the year-book!

But when I got accepted to Cal, why was I shunted into bonehead English? And what does that have to do with the Unz Initiative?

Let me try to explain. Technically, I am not a pure native speaker of English even though I was born in Oakland, Calif. The part of Oakland where I was born was very Chinese. My first language was sze yip, a dialect spoken in the Taishan region of Guangdong Province, China. Since my family was plunked down into a larger English-speaking environment, we were in a “dual immersion” language situation: sze yip mixed with English, sometimes all sze yip, sometimes all English.

Gradually, English began to dominate. It wasn’t anything my parents did. Buddha knows they wanted me and my older sisters to retain sze yip and to read and write Chinese. We went to Chinese school after American school. I even got a special tutor for high Cantonese and fine Chinese literature.

It didn’t work. English grew even more dominant. We heard it all the time at school from teachers and classmates, from our customers at our family’s restaurant, on the radio and TV. We thought little about this transformation. No one really had to say anything, but the dominant English-speaking culture sent clear signals. We Chinatown kids knew implicitly that if we were to succeed in the world outside, we had to know English.

No one in that dominant culture said to us, “Oh, it’s OK if you retain your native language and culture too.” What I gained in my ability to read, write, speak and think in English was the demise of my parent’s culture. I can barely speak sze yip now, and I have no literacy in Chinese.

That is why the Unz Initiative is potentially harmful to millions of California children who come from backgrounds similar to mine, and I do not limit this group to ethnic Chinese youngsters. One of the lesser discussed aspects of the debate is this question of cultural identity and what it means to be an American.

If approved, the Unz Initiative, or Proposition 227, would eliminate bilingual education programs in California public schools and require newly arrived immigrant children who aren’t proficient in English to take an “immersion English” class for up to one year before moving into classrooms where English is the only language of instruction. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire entrepreneur, says bilingual education programs have failed by using too much of the child’s native language.

I am not here to defend all bilingual education programs. Some have worked, others haven’t. I do think the Unz method is simplistic, overly rigid and intolerant of primary-language support for children who need it.

For many of these kids, the Unz prescription may be a very rough road because linguists I have talked with say it takes a lot longer than a year for non-English proficient children to acquire English well enough to handle subjects taught in English. The classroom scenario under Unz is scary, and I can see a lot of immigrant children being discouraged if they can’t keep up in their school work because their English skills aren’t up to par. This could potentially hurt immigrant children from relatively poor backgrounds the most.

In addition, the Unz approach will force immigrant children to immerse themselves in English at the expense of who they were–persons born into a language and culture that isn’t English. The Unz Initiative doesn’t celebrate bilingualism, or the ability to speak, read, write and think in two languages.

Helen Joe-Lew, a San Francisco bilingual teacher for the past 25 years, asked, “Why is it that we as a language minority are asked to give up something, and middle class white parents put their kids into Spanish or Mandarin immersion classes, and they see value in learning a second language? Why are we [Chinese speakers] asked to strip ourselves of our native language and culture in order to learn English?”

The tradeoff, even when seemingly willingly undertaken, may be faulty. Lily Wong Fillmore, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in language and literacy, said many Asian American students in the California State University system (one tier down from the UC system) do not pass their English placement exams. The majority of students in remedial English in the California state universities are of Asian descent, she said.

For many American-born Asians, like me, she said: “You lost your mother tongue. What you may have forfeited was a close relationship, an easy loving relationship, with your parents. My children couldn’t talk to their grandmother [who spoke very little English]. There are other things that count too besides learning English well, and that is family relationships.”

Fillmore is correct about the loss. My relationship with my parents suffered because we spoke two different languages. I learned English well enough to earn a living using it, but the price I paid was dear.

Bill Wong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and a regular contributor to Asian Week.

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