Teacher Lien Nguyen got up in front of a class of 3-year-olds and gave a lesson typical of a preschool: Where are your eyes, nose and hair?
But Nguyen did something not heard in most classrooms: She repeated each body part in Vietnamese.
Most of the class understood, as 16 of the 23 children spoke Vietnamese.
While Spanish is by far the most common language other than English in California’s publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs, they enroll children who speak a variety of languages, reflecting the pockets of ethnic communities dotting California. In Los Angeles County alone, 224 languages and dialects are spoken by children in Head Start and the California State Preschool Program.
Preschool programs are playing a key role in helping children who speak languages other than English get ready for kindergarten. More than half of students in those two programs – the largest ones statewide – speak a language other than English at home.
Vietnamese was ranked the third most common home language – behind Spanish and English – in the state preschool program in 2013-14 and is also the third most common language in K-12. Head Start lists “East Asian languages” as the third most common home language.
Many of those Vietnamese-speaking children attend preschools near Little Saigon, the largest enclave of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, centered in Westminster and Garden Grove in Orange County.
The predominant language in the Westminster School District’s state preschool program is Vietnamese – spoken by 36 percent of students, followed by roughly a third who speak Spanish and a third who speak English. At Land School, where Nguyen teaches, more than half of the preschoolers speak Vietnamese at home.
Throughout California’s preschools, a range of languages is spoken, sometimes with many dialects within those languages. Some programs, such as Head Start, aim to employ at least one person who can speak each of those languages, even if only one child in the class speaks it – often a difficult task.
Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which is funded by tobacco-tax money, has about 300 providers throughout the county. About 5 percent of the preschoolers speak languages other than English or Spanish as a primary language, said Mariel Kyger, a research analyst for the program. About 9 percent of preschool providers employ staff members who speak languages other than Spanish or English, including Korean, Armenian and Chinese.
“It seems like an impossible task,” said Keesha Woods, the division director of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “Our children’s needs are changing from one year to the next.”
The Westminster School District has long attracted a large Vietnamese population, with 21 percent Vietnamese speakers among its English learners. Vietnamese immigrants began moving to the area after the fall of Saigon 40 years ago and soon opened a string of businesses in the community, which became known as Little Saigon.
This school year, the district started the first dual-language Vietnamese program in the state. It began with kindergarten and will expand to other grades in future years.
Westminster officials are talking about beginning the dual-language program in preschool, said Beverlee Mathenia, the district’s executive director of early education and expanded learning. Already, this year, the preschools are offering Pathways to Biliteracy awards, an Orange County program that gives certificates to children who master skills in two languages.
In a parent orientation session in early September, teachers stressed that the preschool classes aim to enhance the children’s first language while they master English. With a mix of Vietnamese and Latino families, a teacher and an aide took turns leading the meeting in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
“This is very, very important – that you support your child’s first language,” said Tuy Truong, a teacher at Finley Elementary School’s preschool class. “We want to validate what you have at home.”
Truong had to learn English herself when she moved to the Little Saigon area from Vietnam at age 21, eventually earning her college degree. She was surprised when her college professor suggested that she get her teaching credential for Vietnamese.
“I thought, ‘Am I ever going to teach Vietnamese?’ I didn’t know that we could use it,” Truong said.
Mathenia snatched her up as soon as she graduated about 10 years ago. “I wanted someone to speak Vietnamese and reflect the culture,” she said.
Three miles away in the Land School classroom, teacher Nguyen also uses her Vietnamese language skills to help draw children out. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen grew up in Los Angeles, but her family spent their weekends in Little Saigon eating and shopping.
When the class started in early September, many of Nguyen’s students wouldn’t say anything at all, she said. But Nguyen couldn’t tell if the 3-year-olds couldn’t speak the language or they were acting shy because they were away from home. She used pictures to ask questions, like what they wanted for lunch or where they wanted to play.
Three weeks into school on a Wednesday in September, the children were a bit more talkative. Nguyen showed the children how to draw faces on the board. “What color should my ears be?” Nguyen said in English, then repeating it in Vietnamese. “Short or long hair?”
In the back, aide Carmen Vega sat with four Spanish-speaking students, giving them directions in their language.
When the children moved to different parts of the room with various activities, the teacher and aides held up a poster with pictures – kitchen, blocks, books, play, art. They asked each child, usually in English, where they wanted to go – a way to practice communicating.
“Say, ‘My plan is to go to the house area,’” Vega told a mostly Spanish-speaking girl. “What are you going to do there?”
“Make soup!” the girl said.
Later, Vega read a Spanish-language book to two girls in the book area. One girl practiced counting to 10 in Vietnamese by pointing to characters in the book. The next girl did the same in English. Then, Vega finished reading the book in Spanish.
Vega is learning a few words and phrases in Vietnamese – sit down, play, bathroom – to help the children. Sometimes, the Spanish-speaking children pick up Vietnamese words and phrases.
Michelle Miller, the supervisor for the early education program at Land School, said while the goal is to retain their native languages, children in the 3-year-old class are often fluent in English after Christmas.
Educators in Westminster have seen firsthand how cultural backgrounds influence parents’ views on early education, differences also examined in research.
A study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly found that parents’ approaches varied among different Latino and Asian cultures. Academic performance among Vietnamese immigrant children was tied more closely to their parents’ expectations, while for other Asian cultures it was related more to the families’ income or parents’ education levels.
Regardless, the study found that demographic factors, such as income and parents’ education, played a bigger role in students’ academic success than use of a language other than English at home.
In Westminster, even though the district is nearly evenly divided by thirds among Spanish-, Vietnamese- and English-speaking families, Mathenia said she has more trouble recruiting Latino families, compared to Vietnamese families, for preschool. She recently hired more Spanish-speaking staff members.
“We intentionally go out to recruit Spanish-speaking families,” Mathenia said. “With Vietnamese families, they line up in droves.”
Miller, who is Hispanic and speaks Spanish, said she finds that some Latino families are worried about sending their children out of the home, so she explains in Spanish the importance of having children interact with others and learn before kindergarten.
But Vietnamese parents sometimes come in when the children are 14 months old, too early to enroll their children, Miller said.
Before starting preschool at Finley this school year, 4-year-old Tran Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, taught herself how to count to 30 and say the colors in English by using an iPad, said her mother, Chau Tran, in Vietnamese as the teacher translated. Because she doesn’t speak English, Tran sent her daughter to a private tutor over the summer three times a week for an hour, spending $300 a month. Tran wanted a tutor to determine how well her daughter was learning English.
Afterward, the girl told her mother that she wanted to go to “a real school where other children are,” Tran said. Tran saw a sign in three languages and signed her daughter up for Westminster’s state preschool program.
Truong said tutoring is fairly common among some of her families, even low-income families who qualify for state preschool.
“As long as they can walk and talk, your child is going to school,” Truong said about the Vietnamese families.