Vol. 2. No. 1 R-4 March 1996
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My Trouble is My English: Asian Students and the American Dream

Danling Fu (1995)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook Publishers
Pp.xvi + 230.
ISBN 0-86709-3555-2 (paper)
US $21.50

The challenges of academic life in high school in the United Sates and the struggles of making literacy relevant to the lives of four Laotian students are the basic themes of My Trouble is My English by Danling Fu. Her stance as a non-native English speaker herself and a researcher of these issues in the domain of ESL provides a unique perspective.

In coming to the United States for graduate study, Danling Fu, a teacher of English in her native China, experienced dissonance between her expectations and those of her Master's program in English. Instead of personalized discussions about the intrinsic meaning of the text and its relevance to life, emphasis was placed on detail, on form, on structure, on elements of composition, on discrete aspects of the literature, on assuming the objective, academic voice. She felt alienated, confused, "helpless, incapable, and defeated" (p.5). In her doctoral program in education, she experienced reading and writing as connections to her own life and to others, grew in her understanding and found her own voice. Her experience is paralleled in this ethnographic study of the acquisition of literacy in English by four Laotian siblings.

Fu followed the 19-, 17-, 16-, and 14-year-old students for one year in a variety of learning experiences in a US American secondary school during the teenagers' third year in the United States. As participant-researcher, Fu's methodology included direct contact as an ESL tutor, observations in various classes, visits in the students' home, interviews with their teachers about class work, and conferences between teachers regarding the students.

Fu uses the first two chapters to set the context for the rest of the book. In the first chapter, she describes the family of two parents and nine children, their ordeal in Laos, their escape to a refugee camp in Thailand and, finally, their confluence in New Hampshire as a family, together for the first time in fifteen years. Fu focuses on the four particular members she is studying and their roles, their attitudes, their personalities within the family. Their memories of Laos and the surprises of life in the United States give hints of the adjustment ahead of them.

In Chapter Two, Fu describes the context of the school and the four students in the throes of making sense--or, once again, trying to survive-- in this new milieu. "One thing they all believe is that if they do well in school, they will succeed in their new culture" (p.33). She documents each one during a specific class [-1-] period. The interactions with their teachers and lack of it with their peers presage difficulties ahead. In each succeeding vignette, Fu connects with theoretical aspects of marginalized learners, the importance of oral communication in learning English, the role of the school in teaching about cultural assumptions, the development of identity.

As much as the learners come increasingly alive in the four subsequent chapters, so do their teachers, the methodologies, and the systems inherent within the high school. Fu's focus is the acquisition of literacy in English; she follows the students' progress in their English classes and in ESL, documenting their personal attitudes and proclivities toward reading and writing as well as what is demanded of them in the classroom. Most often the two collide. The students want to share experiences, to connect with their background knowledge, to express ideas and feelings, but are asked to provide words out of context, to concentrate on vocabulary and spelling rather than communication, to follow directions rather than to think, to fill in the blanks of artificial sentences; in short, to become passive and mechanistic learners with no control over their reading or their writing. When the students are allowed to be in control of their reading and writing, as briefly encountered by each one, their attitudes toward literacy and their skills blossom as they experience ownership of their work.

The English teachers and the two untrained ESL tutors use methodologies and have attitudes that are not unique. Most show strict adherence to curricular demands, are frustrated by the extra work or possible lower standards the students represent for them, do not understand the field of second language acquisition. They have low expectations, give convoluted explanations, lack time, use outmoded strategies, and reflect a US American cultural tendency to discrete learning instead of holistic. When some teachers are able to achieve curricular goals by allowing the students their own personal and cultural connections to the material, they are gratified by the results.

Fu's final chapter explicates some of the important issues brought out by this study. For students, she highlights the need for more opportunities to interact with peers, the problems of decontextualized and mechanistic learning inherent particularly in the lower end of tracking systems, and the stranglehold of a fixed, prescribed curriculum, particularly for ESL students. Fu also points to the need for teachers to become better acquainted with ESL students to avoid cultural stereotyping and misunderstanding, the need acknowledged by mainstream teachers for better acquaintance with the field of ESL, and the need for the system to grant teachers more freedom and control in their teaching. She advocates a multicultural approach, which "...really means an inclusion and an embrace of every one of us under the umbrella of democracy" (p.211). [-2-]

This book has many strengths. A very readable and timely book for mainstream teachers and ESL educators, its authenticity makes one smile, cry, cringe, clap. Sy says, " `Kids here don't make things to play, they buy things to play.' " (p. 28). Tran comments, " `Books don't laugh at me.' " (p.40). The ESL teacher repeats, " 'No, you don't have to think, the answer is in the sentence.' " (p. 80). Cham achieves a dream: "...an award for the best achievement in the field of ESL study" (p. 166). Sprinklings of cultural expectations from both sides of the desk help readers appreciate and learn the causes of some of the classroom misunderstandings.

However, this is not a "how-to" book. It does not give specific, concrete strategies for teachers to implement immediately in their classrooms. It is a book meant to prod teachers into thinking more deeply about the issues and to create ways that are compatible with their own teaching styles. Some teachers reading this book may find that this lack of specific teaching strategies is a detraction. As an ethnographic study of the journeys of these four children through high school in the United States, that is not the purpose of the book.

The study has a strong theoretical framework. Fu demonstrates dramatically that as a part of learning, literacy needs to be connected to the lives of the learners (Bruner, 1960), with time and space to make the new information their own. "The more unexpected the information, the more processing space it takes up" (Bruner, 1986, p. 47). Fu corroborates the theory that literacy is a social transaction (Anderson and Stokes, 1984; Rodby, 1992), though many teachers often still think of it as purely a cognitive task (Rodby, 1992). Her study confirms that literacy practices for marginalized learners are often focused on form instead of on the communicative function of reading and writing (Rose, 1990), a practice that came alive in this context. While she makes an extremely strong case for the whole language approach, she unfortunately does not acknowledge the current theoretical debate between that and a skills- oriented approach. The "when and how" (Chevalier, 1995) of skills is ignored. This lack leaves one wondering, at times, how these students will learn to participate in the culture of the classroom, in the culture of power (Delpit, 1988).

Fu points to the need for reform: of texts, of teacher training programs and of systems. The ESL texts use artificial, uninspiring, disconnected materials and strategies; teachers (ESL and mainstream) use strategies that are outmoded; systems, both public school and teacher education, need changes so that teachers can quickly and effectively integrate all "marginalized" learners.

Fu started her "Acknowledgements" with the words: "This book represents my transformation from a semi-feudal educator to a [-3-] democratic teacher" (p.xiii). Donald Graves ended his "Foreword" with the words that we must be "...remind[ed] of the contradictions between school structure and our democratic heritage" (p.xi). Allowing students the freedom to choose and to share their cultural heritages as they begin reading and writing in their new language and thereby to own the process is a bold step in the right direction.


Anderson, A. & Stokes, S. (1984). Social and institutional influences on the development and practice of literacy. In Goelman, Oberg, and Smith (Eds.), Awakening to literacy (pp. 24-37). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Bruner, Jerome. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, Jerome. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chevalier, Marsha. (1995). Seeking new paths: Whole language in ESL and bilingual classrooms. TESOL Matters, 5(1), 15.

Delpit, Lisa. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3),280-298.

Rodby, Judith. (1992). Appropriating literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rose, Mike. (1990). Lives on the boundary. New York: Penguin Books.

Jacklyn Blake Clayton
Boston University


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