S.F. Parents Opt for Language Immersion

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(This project is a collaboration of New America Media,
San Francisco Chronicle and KTSF Television. The story cannot be reprinted without permission.)


한국어 번역

The paths that brought parents to the Korean Immersion program at San Francisco’s Claire Lilienthal elementary school are varied. In several cases one parent is Korean. But a Caucasian couple, a couple deciding between Chinese and Korean instruction, and a Korean and Caucasian couple who communicate in Japanese also made their way to the school. If the paths were different, the motivation was singular – they recognize the importance of language and cultural diversity in today’s world and they’re determined to give their children the advantage of being bilingual and bicultural. At least bilingual. This is English-only Not.

“We want our children to have a multilingual and multicultural background,” said Jonathan Lee, medical director for the San Mateo Medical Center North County Clinics. “Language is a gateway that opens up the culture in a different way.” He is Chinese and Korean, but because his mother was an orphan he doesn’t have contact with his extended family in China. His wife is Korean so they decided to send their children to San Francisco’s only Korean immersion school.

“Our son came in Kindergarten and by the first grade he was reading in Korean and English,” Lee said. “We travel to Korea every summer and it’s good that the kids can speak to their grandparents.”

Val and Don Persky are Caucasian with no particular ties to the Korean language. They just wanted their children to be bi-literate.

“It was important to us for them to learn a second language, it didn’t matter as much what language,” said Don Persky, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It’s a global society and we want our children to understand that English and the U.S. are not the center of the universe. Learning a second language and culture is the first step in realizing that.”

He said he noticed the immersion experience’s influence on his daughter while they were visiting Turkey. “She knew to sit back and observe and she fit in nicely. I attributed it to her exposure to a different culture here,” he said.

Sujung Kim, a public defender in San Francisco, had a more personal motivation. She came to the U.S. from Korea in the first grade and growing up, she experienced an identity crisis; as a teenager she was ashamed of being Korean among her white friends. As she matured, she embraced her heritage.

“I didn’t want my children to go through a similar identity crisis,” she said. Her husband is Caucasian and understands the importance of their children knowing her culture. “We live in his culture. I feel strongly about maintaining our Korean heritage. Ever since I was pregnant, I hoped and dreamed for our children to come to this school.”

Kyoung-Ah Willets and John Wells, from two other families at the school, wanted to spare their children the difficulty of learning a second language as adults.

“I was fascinated with Japanese. But I took it up late in life and it’s hard in your ‘30s and’40s," Wells said. “I want William to be able to do it without thinking.”

Agony. That’s the word Willets used to describe her experience learning to speak English when she came from Korea to go to graduate school, even though she had studied English since junior high school. “I was so stressed out. Comparing my age and my speaking level, it wasn’t matching,” she said, laughing.

Some parents worried that with so much class time taught in Korean, their children might fall behind in English. Kim said her children have had the opposite experience. “Learning a second language, they are better able to decode language. They read above their grade level in English,” she said.

Sunny Chong, a Kindergarten teacher in the immersion program, said they teach students from all backgrounds - African American, Chinese, Latino and Middle Eastern. Indeed the school (three-quarters of the students are not in the language immersion program) has an incredibly diverse student body.

“I’m Korean,” Chong said. “For me to hear other ethnicities speaking Korean and their pronunciation is so perfect, that with my back turned, I don’t know if they’re Korean native born or not. I think, `Wow this is amazing.’”

“We had a piñata party,” Chong said,”and a colleague observed, here are Korean immersion students playing piñata in an American schoolyard.” Named after the daughter of German immigrants who helped pave the way for school integration, no less.

While the San Francisco Board of Education in 2010 voted to award Seals of Biliteracy to students proficient in two or more languages, parents say funding has not been available to expand the program. Because most of the city’s immersion programs end in the fifth grade, parents worry their children won’t be able to maintain their language skills. At Claire Lilienthal, they have formed a non-profit organization to develop long term funding and extend the program into middle school.

One week before the end of the school year, immersion students of various racial backgrounds wore the hanbok, traditional Korean dress, and performed a fan dance in the auditorium. Their classmates sat on the floor and watched. Or teased each other. Afterwards, their African-American assistant principal congratulated them in English; the teacher who taught them the dance accepted a bouquet of flowers and spoke to them in Korean. The students weaved between English and Korean, American and Korean cultures, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

This project is a collaboration of New America Media, San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com and KTSF Television, a local Asian-language station. We launched the project with the idea that telling each other our stories would encourage communities to talk about common goals.

KTSF will air the stories from Monday, July 2nd through Wednesday, July 4th in the Chinese language, live newscasts at 7pm and 10pm. The story will be published in San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Insight section on July 1st  and posted on SFGATE.com on July 2nd.

Read the story on SFGate.com here, and here for the KTSF story.

Brenda Payton is a Bay Area writer. Vivian Po is a New America Media staff reporter. Jo Wan is a KTSF news reporter.