Remembering my early days of American School

"I Could Not Sink And Swim"

If you want to see the world, you don’t need to join the Navy. Simply get on a plane, train, or automobile and find your way to California, home to just about every ethnic group in the world. I should know– grew up in Los Angeles.

As a first grader who had just arrived in the States from Korea, I recall my fear of my first day of elementary school. It is perfectly understandable for a shy six-year-old who had lived his entire life in an exclusively ethnically homogeneous society (Korea), to be anxious and even frightened about attending school with a diverse group of African-American, Hispanic, and other Asian children. It is even more so when you consider the fact that I couldn’t speak or read a single word of English, and that every sign, message, and utterance looked and sounded alien to me. Looking back, I’m amazed at how quickly I was able to overcome these obstacles and adjust to life in America.

Actually, I remember that most of my first grade classmates were not much better off than I was. In what is quite humorous to me now, I think that the only person who could speak English in my class was the teacher. One advantage I had was that I went to an elementary school in Koreatown, which had an abundance of Korean-speaking teachers (including Ms. Paik, my first grade instructor). She made the transition much easier, as she gave me confidence while I moved at a turtle’s pace in learning English. To give you an idea of how little I understood English, my mom recalls a time when she came to pick me up after school. When I didn’t appear at our usual meeting spot long after all the other kids had come out, she worriedly went to my classroom. She found me there all alone, standing timidly in the corner. When she asked me what I was doing there, I told her that the teacher had instructed me to stand there. My mom asked. “What did she say to you?” I replied weakly, “Pardon me.” I had somehow misunderstood “Pardon me” for “Stand in the corner.” I can joke about it now, but believe me: it was frightening when it happened.

The problem I find with Proposition 227, which will go before voters on June 2, is that it force-feeds English on children who aren’t ready for it. This “sink or swim” mentality assumes that students will learn English faster out of a sheer necessity to survive. Like the proverbial panacea that cures all ailments, this approach ignores delicate and innate cultural, social, and ethnic differences and groups everyone into one category: students with limited English proficiency (LEP). I’m sure that many students do indeed learn to “swim” in this manner–after much thrashing about, barely keeping their head above water, and doing whatever it took to keep themselves from drowning. But can this be considered a successful instruction program? Instead, wouldn’t it be better to give students a feel for the water, gradually building their confidence to stay afloat, until they can finally master the strokes?

In my own experience, learning English was very similar to learning how to swim. As a child, I had a tremendous fear of water. My parents felt that it was necessary for me to overcome this fear at an early age, before it became a real phobia as an adult. And so, they enrolled me at a renowned swimming school in Los Angeles. It was an intensive program with a remarkable success rate. It promised to teach swimming in one week. On the first day, my stern instructor unexpectedly tossed me into the deep end of the pool. Imagine my sheer terror at the sudden taste of chlorine and the realization that I was slowly sinking to the bottom. I truly believed that I was going to drown. At the very last minute, somebody jumped into the water and pulled me on to the deck. Supposedly, the school used this technique help its students conquer their fear of water. For me, it had the exact opposite effect, and I immediately begged my mom to take me out of the class. The “sink or swim” clearly didn’t work for me. Over the course of the next five days, my instructor strapped an inflatable vest around me and had me dive off a springboard and swim from one end of the pool to the other. I must have done this a thousand times, until I had completely lost fear of being in the water. When the instructor felt that I was ready, he took off the life vest and challenged me to swim the length of the pool-on my own. To my great surprise, I had enough confidence to do it–not just once, but twice.

For students learning English, bilingual education provides the essential life vest that not only keeps them afloat, but also builds their confidence and selfesteem. It gives them an opportunity to catch their breath and figure out what school is all about. And of course, it instills in them a desire to learn, which ultimately helps them succeed in life.

As a six-year-old, who had just immigrated to America, I was incredibly insecure, and felt intimidated by everything around me. Faced with the formidable task of adjusting to a new home, culture, and language, I often wanted to return to Korea, where everything was familiar and much simpler. I imagine that the same must be true for thousands of children in similar situations. And yet, I’m glad that I came to the States at such an early age, when I had a greater capacity to change and to adapt. While growing up, I had numerous friends who immigrated when they were 10 or 11. My struggles, anxieties, and insecurities were nothing compared to theirs. To me, it is frightening to imagine what might have happened to them if bilingual education was not available at that time (as it now threatens future generations of immigrant students).

Looking back, I realize that I was very fortunate. My life is one testimonial that bilingual education is a successfuland necessary-program. Upon successfully completing my ESL program, I had grasped enough understanding of English (and all the other subjects) to skip the third grade. After only two years in a bilingual system, I was able to go from second grade to fourth grade. Thirteen years later, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honors as guess what…an English major. Could all of this have happened without the aid of bilingual education? Possibly. Did it help that it was available to me? Most definitely. As we go to the polls on June 2 to vote on Proposition 227, let’s give our children the greatest gift of all: a chance to succeed.

Henry Yun graduated from UC Berkeley with B.A. in English, and is now working at the JoyToy Co. in Los Angeles.

Comments are closed.