The 8 a.m. bell shrilled, and a squirming line of children made their way into class, plopping down on a mat.
The teacher stepped forward, welcoming them: "Chao ban, Quin. Chao ban, Koltan. Chao ban, Roberto." After a "good morning" song, she held up a picture of rain.
"Mua. Mua," she said, her tone deliberate.
The kindergartners at DeMille Elementary near Little Saigon are participating in the state's first Vietnamese/English dual-immersion program.
A third are native English speakers, a third native Vietnamese speakers and the rest use both languages at home.
In the first few weeks of school, they will work on mastering basic terms — "Toi ten la" for "My name is," the days of the week, months of the year and the colors of the rainbow.
For teacher Huong Dang, handling clusters of active 5- and 6-year-olds takes humor and huge doses of patience. "Right now, I'm just exposing them to simple things," the 10-year veteran of the Westminster School District says. "Later, they will pick up more of the language through actions and games."
DeMille is next to the largest business and cultural district for Vietnamese Americans outside of Vietnam. Moreover, Orange County boasts 300,000-plus Vietnamese Americans, making it the biggest Vietnamese expatriate community in the world — and home to former refugees who are now mayors, city council members — even a state senator.
Many local Asian leaders, in television interviews and at events around the county, lend their support to the dual-immersion track, in which students get half of their instruction in Vietnamese and half in English. The kids switch classrooms before lunchtime.
School officials plan to add an extra grade to the track each year, until a significant portion of students in kindergarten through sixth grade has the chance to study the Vietnamese language and culture.
Principal Shannon Villanueva championed the program: "I live in this community, and this is what I'd want for my own children. We talk about being 21st century learners, and this is exactly that."
No matter the language or lesson, the first month of school is crucial for setting classroom rules and adjusting to routines.
One recent morning, Dang praised some of her students as being "be ngoan," or well-behaved children, explaining that good manners will earn them recognition on a chart where each was represented by a tiny frog with their name on it. Amid the controlled chaos, one boy shoved another and a girl wearing Hello Kitty socks looked as if she was about to cry.
Soon, the group will focus on memorizing the Vietnamese alphabet (which lacks an "f," "w" and "z" but includes more accented vowel sounds than English).
Dang said she knows the monosyllabic language can be difficult, with two-letter words that may have five meanings, depending on the accents. But to her, "there are beautiful sounds."
To help the students along, every item in the classroom is labeled with its Vietnamese name. And every instruction from Dang comes with a translation, like "dung len" for stand up and "ngoi xuong" for sit down.
"Vocabulary's going to be their biggest challenge," said Dang, who with the help of a cordless mike repeats words, allowing the youngsters time to absorb new terms.
Maria Pavia, whose son Christopher is in Dang's class, said, "He used to be a very shy kid, and it's a big shocker that he's talking more — in a different language."
Pavia, who is from Michoacan, Mexico, said she's ready once the homework assignments start, having lined up a Vietnamese co-worker "as my go-to. I've been asking her, 'Can I call you any time?' My gosh, this is a learning experience for the whole family."
Tanya Truong, who lives in Santa Ana, applied for a transfer so her daughter, Christine, could attend DeMille. "It's a good combo," she said. "Being young and trying something new."
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