Just after I slid out of my mother’s womb in a rented house in Oakland’s Chinatown more than a half century ago, the first words I heard were in the village dialect my parents had transported to America eight years earlier from the Taishan area of Guangdong Province in southeastern China.

It mattered little at that time that the language spoken, written, and read most frequently in the United States was English. My parents spoke the language they grew up with in China. So that was my first language. But because Chinatown was also part of an English-speaking community, I soon learned English to go with our home-grown see yip dialect.

Eventually, without direct prodding or explicit orders, the kids I grew up with acquired a facility in English that easily outstripped our ability to speak see yip and write and read Chinese, despite the fact that we went to Chinese school after our regular “American” school.

This process of Americanization is reflected in the experiences of other earlier immigrants to America who first heard the language of their parents, but quickly picked up English, which overwhelmed their native tongues.

The pattern of linguistic integration for immigrants after two or more generations comes to mind as Californians face another hot-button ethnic wedge issue on the June ballot–whether or not to dump bilingual education in the public schools.

As with anti-illegal-immigrant and anti-affirmative-action issues earlier this decade, the anti-bilingual-education campaign is led by a political conservative. Ron Unz, a wealthy Silicon Valley businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination four years ago, wants to substitute total immersion English classes for one year for children under 10 years of age who are deficient in English. His initiative doesn’t account for English-deficient children over 10 and creates barriers to continuing bilingual programs.

Early polls indicate overwhelming support for the Unz Initiative, including an impressive majority of California’s Latino voters; a somewhat surprising finding. Advocates of bilingual education dispute how questions were framed to the Latinos surveyed. While Spanish speakers are affected most because of their large numbers in California, Asian immigrants who speak a variety of languages and dialects will also feel the impact if the measure passes.

For people like me who picked up English through immersion, the Unz proposal may seem reasonable. The English language and the culture based on it are powerful forces. In Miami, for instance, it is difficult for children of Spanish-speaking parents to maintain a facility in Spanish because English is the dominant lure.

While I am attracted to the idea that anyone settling in America ought to learn English, the Unz Initiative is too restrictive and mean spirited. It doesn’t really seem designed to help English-deficient children learn English. Rather, it seems aimed at keeping them out of America, especially the provision that requires parents who want their children to remain in bilingual programs to show up personally at school to request a waiver from English-immersion classes.

Ideally, bilingual programs should help English-deficient students “bridge” into English proficiency by using their native tongue to teach subjects like science, social studies, and math. Instead, critics say current bilingual-education programs mostly serve to incubate the native languages of immigrants and don’t bridge them well or soon enough into English.

If that is the case, then why don’t we fix those programs rather than toss them out? The need to bridge immigrants into English is obviously there, given our immigration patterns over the past 30 years. Moreover, I believe most immigrants want to learn English because they realize their future success is dependent on their ability to use English. A combination of immersion and bilingual instruction would seem to be the best solution.

Forced immersion through English-only classes guts an immigrant’s links to his or her root culture. Learning English need not be an exercise in cultural genocide.

It is ironic that the Unz anti-bilingual campaign comes at a time when international companies are seeking bilingual and multi-lingual employees to do business globally.

The Unz Initiative may square with the conservative craziness of parts of California, but it is dissonant in a world where many voices ought to be heard.

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

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