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Lack Of Asian Language Teachers In California Leads To Demand For State Investment

An Asian woman in a red short-sleeved, polka-dot shirt helps three kindergarten students who are coloring with crayons.
Teacher Van Vu helps transitional kindergarten students at Murdy Elementary School in Garden Grove School District. Vu teaches the Vietnamese half of the school's dual language immersion program.
(Jill Replogle
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Chinese and Vietnamese are, after Spanish, the most commonly spoken non-English languages in California, but they’re rarely taught in public schools because there’s not enough teachers to do the job.

The state issued nearly 1,200 bilingual accreditations in the 2020-2021 school year, but only 63 were for Mandarin Chinese and two for Vietnamese, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

The total number of K-12 teachers accredited in Asian languages added up to 93.

Civil rights leaders on Monday joined with state legislators in calling for a one-time, $5 million state allocation to invest in a teacher training consortium for Asian languages, in hopes of moving some of the credentialing costs off the shoulders of teachers.

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Dual-immersion language programs not only benefit immigrant children who can learn English concurrently with their native tongue, but also native English speakers who want to acquire a second language and understand another culture — an opportunity that advocates say is even more critical during the rise in attacks on Asians in recent years.

“Study after study has shown that when we are exposed to other communities, other cultures and other languages, literally our brain rewires in a different way that allows us to be more empathetic,” said Nikki Dominguez, policy director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles.

The money is being requested by State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who chairs the state legislature’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. Pan noted that the state has responded to anti-Asian incidents with last year’s passage of the $166.5 million API Equity Budget, which funds anti-bias education and the tracking of anti-AAPI hate crimes. But he added that fighting discrimination needs to be approached from even more angles, such as teaching Asian languages.

Pan drew from his personal experience starting elementary school in the States and only knowing how to speak Mandarin. He said he was enrolled in a special education class on the East Coast when he could have thrived under the instruction of an Asian language-speaking teacher who could help English learners build a sense of belonging and confidence.

“We need to be sure that every child, no matter what language they speak at home, and how they got here, has the opportunity to get an outstanding education — and that not only benefits that child, it benefits the whole state,” Pan said.

Pan said barriers to expanding Asian language education include a lingering sentiment that newcomers need to learn English, and also the sheer number of Asian languages that have state agencies choosing only the top-spoken ones for which to provide translation services.

We need to be sure that every child, no matter what language they speak at home, and how they got here, has the opportunity to get an outstanding education.
— State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento)

“Think about how many AAPI families where the children — even if they're under age — are sitting there translating for their parents or their grandparents or whoever else,” Pan said.

The $5 million would be allocated over four years to California State University’s Asian Language Bilingual Teacher Education Program Consortium, which is spread across 10 campuses and is focused on increasing the number of accredited bilingual teachers in six Asian languages: Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, Hmong, Korean and Vietnamese.

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Most of the classes are being offered over the summer without any financial aid available, said Fernando Rodríguez-Valls, who works with the consortium as a professor of secondary education at Cal State Fullerton. Tuition for the two required classes averages around $2,500 and preps teachers on how to help students comprehend subjects in another language.

“It’s not just learning the languages,” Rodríguez-Valls said. “It’s learning mathematics in Khmer. It’s learning science in Korean, learning history in Vietnamese. And in order to accomplish that, we need teachers who are qualified.”

Pan’s budget request is being backed by State Sen.Tom Umberg, D-Long Beach, who acknowledged it was not a slam dunk.

“Some opponents create the straw man [argument] that somehow this is a zero-sum game,” Umberg said. “If we're investing money in [bilingual] education, that somehow we're taking money away from other beneficial programs.”

Umberg, whose own son learned Korean in a pre-K class, said that dual immersion programs will give students a competitive edge in a global economy and that he would keep reintroducing the budget proposal if necessary.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.