Language Is a Human Right
An interview with veteran activist Debbie Wei on language education in the Asian American community
In addition to her many years teaching English language learners and as a curriculum specialist, Debbie Wei is a founding member of Asian Americans United and the founding principal of Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia. She is currently elementary school director at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, California.
Grace Cornell Gonzales: Let’s start by talking about your background as an educator.
Debbie Wei: I never envisioned myself as a teacher because I didn’t have great school experiences. I fell into teaching by accident. I wanted to be a community organizer. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown in the late 1970s, a lot of people were immigrants from Hong Kong and they spoke Cantonese. So I got a college fellowship to go live in Hong Kong for two years to learn Cantonese.
But this was right after the Vietnam War. When I returned to Philadelphia, there were many refugees from Vietnam, from Laos, from Cambodia. There were also some Haitians and Cubans. There was no longer a dominant language among immigrants in the communities where I was working and living, and I didn’t speak any of their languages. But I could communicate with the kids because they were going to school and acquiring English. I thought, “Well, if this is the group that I’m going to be working with to try to change conditions in the community, why don’t I become a teacher?”
I got certified through a program where you could work in a school and get your certification at the same time. I became an ESL (English as a second language) teacher and I fell in love with teaching. A few years later, the School District of Philadelphia published a pretty horrific diversity handbook. It included statements like “Puerto Ricans like to eat tacos.” There was already an African American studies department within the district, so the Latina/o and Asian communities organized to demand that the district hire a multicultural specialist for each of these two constituencies. Many community members asked me to apply for that position. I became a curriculum specialist in multicultural studies for the next 13 years.
I was still organizing for educational justice during that time and working with an organization called Asian Americans United. We talked about how to make schools immigrant-friendly, and we decided after many years that we needed to create a model school. Starting the charter process was not an easy decision because politically we were concerned about the role of charter schools in public education. However, after a multiyear decision-making process, we decided to go ahead and start Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS). I was the founding principal. I held that position for five years and then I stepped aside, knowing that I’d still be around if they needed me.
GCG: Why did you choose the focus on folk arts?
DW: We were always moved by the vernacular cultural forms in our communities—for example, the lion dancers in Chinatown each New Year. These forms usually aren’t part of “popular” culture and the artists don’t make a ton of money. You won’t see them on MTV. But the form they practice is something they treasure, a gift that was passed on to them, and that they in turn feel a need to pass on. We saw folk art as an important vehicle to present an anti-materialist message to kids. It shows that you can value things deeply that don’t have monetary value. It also shows that tradition and culture are things you can choose to keep and to pass on. It isn’t easy. Sometimes you have to fight for it.
We knew the school was going to be serving a large and diverse immigrant community. We thought about language and how you bring non-English speaking elders into a school so they are respected, so that they don’t necessarily need to know English or speak it well, or have college degrees in order to be able to teach you something. Our Chinese opera teacher, Li Shuyuan, is a fifth-generation Chinese opera artist. She doesn’t speak any English. But she taught kids how to do the martial arts roles in some of the operas (e.g., Monkey King) and the kids loved it. We wanted them to get this message: Adults don’t need to know English and don’t need to be recognized by “institutions” to be valuable resources. Our kids have learned so many different things from so many different traditions.
GCG: Why did you include Mandarin in the FACTS curriculum?
DW: From the beginning, we wanted to locate the school in a place where the kids would feel safe. There were a lot of anti-immigrant tension spots around the city. We thought Chinatown was a pretty safe community and we were well known there as an organization, so we decided to place the school in Chinatown. Chinatown lacked any public services, so the school would be an important resource and a political statement, too.
Since we would be in Chinatown and a lot of our kids (although certainly not all) would come from a Chinese heritage background, we decided to add the Chinese language program. There was disagreement among the founders; we wanted diversity among our students and families, and some founders worried that if we singled out Mandarin Chinese as a language, it would have an exclusionary effect. My feeling was that it didn’t matter what language background kids were coming from—we wanted the school to show respect to the community in which we were located. We wanted the school’s curriculum to address linguistic human rights and reflect on the importance of being bilingual and honoring languages. And you can’t do that unless you teach a language. The language that made the most sense, given our population, was Mandarin.
We started with just one teacher for K through 5th grade, and just one or two periods a week of Chinese. We used a Foreign Language Acquisition Program Grant to split the Chinese language program between heritage and non-heritage language learners. The heritage language kids often already understood and spoke Chinese and, even if it wasn’t Mandarin, they understood the structure of the language. (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese are different languages orally, but the written language is the same.) Another piece of the grant funded the kids’ work on oral histories in the community so that we could identify folk artists. For example, we used a Chinese chop (a stamp with calligraphy on it) as the logo for our school, and we found the chop maker working as a waiter in a restaurant in Chinatown. Initially, I envisioned students using their Mandarin language skills to interview folk artists, but there was concern that this would exclude many folk artists in the city, so we took out the explicit language component of the oral histories project.
GCG: Why is heritage language study important?
DW: Language is a human right. What you get from language is not just language. You get culture. You get history. It’s a way to include non-English speaking parents. In the United States, kids get the message pretty early on that it’s not cool to be bilingual. That mindset was there, even at FACTS. Sometimes I would see kids talking to their grandparents in Chinese. But when I talked to them in Chinese, they would claim that they didn’t know Chinese and answer me in English.
I didn’t grow up bilingual. My parents spoke Chinese but came to the United States during the McCarthy era. We weren’t in Chinatown, and we weren’t in a Chinese-speaking community. I didn’t find out until my 30s that my parents were undocumented for the first few years that they were here. In hindsight, I understand why they didn’t want us to speak Chinese. They were afraid. That is really sad. I don’t want families to feel that way. If we value children and we’re really about whole-child education, it’s wrong not to support a heritage language.
I was the only person with my mom when she passed on. She passed at home and everyone but me was in another part of the house at that moment. I was just sitting, watching her, because we knew she was passing soon. Her final words were in her village dialect. I was the only person there to hear them, and I didn’t understand what she said.
No kid should have to go through that. I never want another child to not understand their mother’s final words. Language should be seen as a gift, an asset, not a deficit.
GCG: Is there a specific significance to heritage language study for Asian American communities in the United States?
DW: That’s tough to say specifically, because I think my theoretical underpinning would apply to anyone. There’s a pedagogical reason: There’s so much research on the importance of first language (L1) development on English (L2) acquisition. And then there’s race. One thing that’s tough for Asians is that we are always perceived as foreigners because of our appearance. Because of restrictive immigration laws, Asians couldn’t immigrate for a long time. So until recently there weren’t many multiple generations of U.S.-born Asians. The racism of immigration laws, coupled with our faces, puts Asian American kids in a space where they’re always having to prove that they’re not foreign. That has a particular psychological effect on children and their heritage language. I think that’s why so many of my kids at FACTS pretended that they didn’t know Chinese.
Things are shifting now because Chinese has become “sexy.” Now everybody wants their kids to speak Mandarin. What really galls me is when people say, “It’s good for business. It’s going to be a big market!”
That is not why you learn a language. I’m sorry, but that’s really not a good reason. Be that as it may, for Chinese Americans now, there’s not as much pressure to lose their heritage language. But racism can still have a strong psychological impact. If you are made to feel shame for who you are through implicit or explicit messages, you’ll want to lose pieces of yourself.
Because of changes in the immigration laws, we can begin to find a community, be together, and find pride in who we are. So I think that things may be changing slowly, but only for Mandarin-speaking folks—not, for example, those who speak Tibetan or Lao or Vietnamese.
GCG: What factors affect the availability of bilingual and/or immersion programs in Asian languages?
DW: I think the trends mirror the national trends in bilingual education. Pennsylvania does not have a history as the starship state for supporting language acquisition. So bilingual education has not been well developed there, even in Spanish. People are working hard now to try to make that happen, but it’s complex. In Pennsylvania there’s no certification in bilingual education. If the colleges of education don’t have a program that focuses on it, then you’re not going to produce teachers who can do it. Even if you have a bilingual program in a school, who’s going to teach it?
Another thing that hurts Asian language acquisition is the relative “obscurity” of many of the languages. When language is only looked at as a market force, what use is it to learn Khmer? Asian Americans are Asian Americans because of the racialization of who we are, but ethnically we’re very different. There’s no one common language. With a few exceptions, you’d be hard-pressed to find bilingual programs in Asian languages other than Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.
GCG: How can we support linguistic diversity in our schools when we don’t have bilingual programs?
DW: It’s important to create an environment where people honor the concept of bilingualism, even if they aren’t bilingual themselves. It’s also important to honor folks who don’t speak English, as we did with the folk artists at FACTS, for example.
Another way schools can value language is to value everyone, especially speakers of languages other than English. Because we were committed to being multicultural and accessible multilingually, we hired support staff to be as representative of broad communities as possible. We had a Spanish-speaking and a Chinese-speaking secretary and an Indonesian-speaking foods director. Our custodian was Vietnamese, and our kitchen staff were Chinese speakers. At FACTS, all adults—including custodians, kitchen staff, and secretaries—were called “Teacher.” We each decided to go by our first name or our last name, but the front part was always “Teacher.” It didn’t matter what languages we spoke or didn’t speak. Of course, we also hired teachers who were bilingual as role models.
We made sure to translate all important documents into multiple languages, and we invested in telephonic interpretation for talking with parents during report card conferences and other conversations. We also invested in simultaneous interpretation equipment—we had the technical capacity for interpreters in four different languages for community meetings.
Schools without bilingual programs can also create spaces to honor language. At the beginning of the school year, I often did poetry writing with the entire staff. We each wrote poetry in whatever language we chose and then people translated the final products. We hung the poems on the walls for the kids when they first came back to school. So the kids saw that the poetry was in multiple languages and reflected multiple cultural experiences, and also saw that the teachers and support staff wrote poetry. All schools deliver important messages to children about the significance of language and the people who speak those languages.