Contributed by Richard Wu, Associate Dean, School of Liberal Arts, Excelsior College
I came to this country from China in 1992, at the age of 35, too old to enact my Broca area and the related motor system to learn to speak English if I had not learned the language before. Fortunately I had. In fact I had a master degree in English from China. I felt lucky to be able to come to the U.S., where I could learn better standard English spoken and written in this country.
California was the state where I started my life in America. I never doubted the ability of Californians to use English in their daily lives but one day I got a surprise. I drove into a strange neighborhood in Los Angeles with my wife and my daughter. We lost our way and needed to ask for direction. I grabbed one young man passing by and was very polite: “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how to get back to Freeway 5?” There is no response, and on closer look, he was not a typical big nosed and sunken eyed Caucasian but a shy Latino. He blushed and stammered and started to murmur in Spanish. I spoke to him back in English and he kept shaking his head. The guy simply did not know a word of English. I became anxious and approached another elderly lady not far from him. The same thing happened. I tried no less than 5 people around without any luck: none of the people in that neighborhood seemed to speak English!
Soon I learned that the state name California is a Spanish word. San Jose should be read as San Hosay. San Joaquin should be San Huakeen. Monterey is not an English word. Hispanics make up more than 50% of the population in many rural towns in California…. So California has two languages: Spanish and English.
It can be insulting if you don’t speak Spanish in parts of California. If you look for jobs, bilingual is often a requirement. I tried to apply for one and was told that Chinese doesn’t count as a second language: they have altered the semantics of “bilingual” to mean English and Spanish only.
When I started tutoring English composition at Fresno State Learning Resource Center, I not only had Hispanic, Hmong, Laotian, Chinese, but also Caucasian students who could not write their papers in English and seriously needed help with sentence structures, thematic statement, punctuation, fragmental structures, run-on sentences, and dangling modifiers. College students by and large don’t know English grammar. Even for the simplest grammar rule, such as the verb tense form “drive” vs. “drives” in
- I drive.
- You drive.
- She drives.
no one I tutored knew why. I had to teach rules like simple present tense to all the students.
Today, as a college academic administrator and English composition instructor, I am fully aware that there is a serious English deficiency at many colleges in this country. I am very interested in helping students succeed in college, especially in their writing success, because writing is the most basic course to start college with. I am proud of our writing program at Excelsior College in being able to develop an On-line Writing Lab, which is open to public and can benefit all college students in this country.