Linguistic skills earning applause

Linguistic skills earning applause


By Dana Hull

Mercury News
Posted on Wed, Jun. 02, 2004

Vietnamese is Donna Nguyen’s native, or “home,” language. The James
Lick High School senior also speaks English and Spanish, which she
began studying in the seventh grade.

Now her linguistic achievements will be recognized.

On Wednesday night, Donna and 16 other seniors from James Lick became
the first in the East Side Union High School District to receive
the district’s new bilingual certificate. The accolade officially
recognizes the students’ ability not only to speak but to read,
write, and understand English and a second — and sometimes a third
— language. The accomplishment will be noted on both high school
diplomas and transcripts.

“It’s cool to be able to speak three languages because English gets
boring sometimes,” said Donna, 17. “Spanish sounds so nice, and the
words are pronounced the way they look. But people are still like,
`Why is this Asian girl speaking Spanish?’ ”

The term “bilingual” is often used to describe immigrant students,
many of whom are Spanish speakers who have mastered English. But
district officials believe the term should apply to any student who
has mastered two languages. This year, 82 students in the district’s
five high schools qualified for the new certificate, and they speak
not just Spanish but Vietnamese, French and German.

“What the East Side is doing is very exciting,” said Maria Vargas,
the executive director of the California Association for Bilingual

“Bilingualism and bi-literacy are very marketable skills, and the
district is recognizing that and giving the students something that
they can take with them when they graduate.”

Though California’s 6 million students are among the most diverse in
the nation, only a few school districts in the state offer bilingual
certificates. Many districts are overwhelmed by the number of home
languages that are spoken, and the biggest challenge is deciding what
level of language proficiency should count as fluent.

The Glendale Unified School District, northwest of Los Angeles, is
believed to be the first district in the state to offer bilingual
certificates. On graduation day, students who can speak two languages
wear a silver medallion, while trilingual students wear gold.

“This year we had one student who qualified in Armenian, Russian and
German, as well as English,” said Cecelia Martin, who coordinates
the program for the district.

Students with Californians for Justice, a statewide organization of
young people, first proposed the bilingual certificate to East Side
Union High School District officials two years ago. A task force of
district officials, students and teachers then worked to hammer out
the criteria.

If a student’s native language is English, they have to pass an
Advanced Placement test in a second language, such as Spanish or
French, to get the certificate. If the student’s home language is
not English, they must pass the AP test in their home language as
well as pass the state’s standardized tests in English.

For languages with no AP course, such as Tagalog, the district is
creating alternative tests that include a reading exam, writing sample
and oral interview.

“It’s a great accomplishment to be proficient in two languages,”
said Bill Rice, an assistant principal at James Lick. “So many kids
are not proficient in one language.”

Maria Chavez, 18, speaks Spanish at home and spends every summer with
relatives in the Mexican state of Jalisco. But she learned English
at school in San Jose, and has regularly taken honors English courses.

“My dad has been pushing me hard to keep my Spanish and not lose
my Mexican roots,” said Chavez. “It’s a really wonderful thing to
know two languages, but it’s really hard work. I’m glad it’s being
noticed by the district.”