Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Speaking Vietnamese

Tommy Nguyen is a typical Vietnamese American teenager. He was born in Southern California. He goes to high school and likes to play basketball. He mostly hangs out with other Vietnamese Americans like him, but he also has some friends who are white, Chinese or Hispanic. But his close friends ultimately are other Vietnamese Americans.

“Why do you like to hang out with Vietnamese Americans?” I asked.

“I guess we just have more in common,” he answered after thinking a little.

“Like what?”

“I dunno,” Tommy shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just more comfortable to be around people who look like you and eat the same kind of food you do.”

“Do you and your friends speak in Vietnamese with one another?” I asked.

Tommy smiled, shaking his head. “Me and my friends don’t know much Vietnamese. When we talk, we throw in some Vietnamese words here and there, but mostly we stick with English.”

“Why don’t you learn?”

“I do. Every Sunday, I go to church to learn Vietnamese. So I like can read and write a little, but not that good.”

“What language do you use at home?”

“Both English and Vietnamese. Mostly, my parents speak to me in Vietnamese, and I answer then in English. Sometimes, I speak Vietnamese to them if I remember the words. But it’s not like I can speak whole sentences in Vietnamese,” Tommy explains.

“Do your parents speak English well?”

“They’re OK. Know enough to get by.”

“Then how do you have conversations with them?”

“It’s not like we talk that much. Usually, they just ask me about school or some normal stuff. It’s not hard for them to understand.”

“What if you have some serious problems that you want to discuss with your parents about?” I pressed.

Tommy shrugs. “I dunno. I think it’d be hard to explain so they can understand.”

“So you don’t talk to your folks that much?”

“I guess not a whole lot,” Tommy said, then took a big gulp of the soda can that he was holding in his hand.

Tommy’s problem with Vietnamese language and his parents is pretty much the same problem that many Vietnamese Americans who grow up in the States are having with theirs. Parents speak little or no English, and they speak little or no Vietnamese. As teenagers, it’s hard enough to face all the issues of growing up – having to deal with adults who don’t understand what it’s like to be young, but it’s worse when even if they try to understand you, they’re unable to speak with you because of the language barrier. It’s painful for the parents when children can’t understand them, and it’s frustrating for us when they don’t understand us. The generation gap is bad enough, but the language gap makes it even worse.

So what are we to do? The way I see it, parents can do something about trying to understand their children such as spending more time with them, and listening to them more; but as for the English bit, most are just too busy trying to find money to take care of the family to go learn English. And they’re too old now to try to remember vocabulary, past participles, and singular and plural nouns. They end up learning something new and forgetting some other things.
But that’s not our problem. We are young and smart. In school, all of us are required to learn a foreign language. Most of the time, it’s French or German, not Vietnamese. We learn for years but we can hardly speak because we don’t really practice using it in real life. But that’s not the case with Vietnamese because we can practice it everyday, speaking with parents, brothers, sisters, and friends. If we had as many opportunities to practice French or German as we did practicing Vietnamese, I guarantee we’d be pretty fluent. The problem is that with all the chances to speak Vietnamese, we choose not to. And that’s why we don’t speak as well as we should. And that’s a shame because here we are, in school, learning everyday some language that we might never even use, but refuse to learn and practice the language of our family and our roots.

Vietnamese isn’t just a language that we learn like a foreign language as a school requirement. It is a way for us to understand our identity and our history. And that means understanding what it’s like to be our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and other people in the Vietnamese community who were born and grew up in this country. Since it’s difficult for these people to learn English, then it’s up to us to learn Vietnamese because we should want to know about our roots and having good relationships with the close people around us by being able to talk with them. Sometimes we get frustrated with our parents and say things like, “You’re in Australia, why don’t you speak what people here speak?” But think about it, with all the time they have to spend trying to put us and our brothers and sisters through school, buy us the clothes and the video games that we want, and paying for the house that we live in, do we really think they have the time to go learn English? And I wouldn’t even go there when it comes to our grandparents.

I realize that not all of us are just plain negative about Vietnamese. Many of us do care about being able to speak the language of our parents. And even though it’s difficult we try to do the best that we can. And I applaud you for it. Last week, I asked my ten year-old nephew Justin Le who lives in Garden Grove, California, why he wants to learn Vietnamese, he answered, “I think it’s important to learn Vietnamese because it is my native language and later in life, if I don't know how to speak this particular language, something will go wrong.” I think he meant not being able to appreciate about his culture and where his parents came from. And also his relationships with the people around him, like his grandparents who don’t speak a lot of English. That’s what his older sister Katarina said, when I asked her the same question. “I think it is unfortunate for other kids who don't want to learn or speak Vietnamese because it is part of your culture and you should talk to your family members in Vietnamese such as your grandparents,” she said.

I was curious what my niece Theresa Tran, a junior high school student in California, thought about learning Vietnamese, so I emailed her the question, and surprisingly she replied in Vietnamese. This is what she said:

“Cháu được 12 tuổi rồi, và cháu học tiếng Việt được 5 năm. Bây giờ cháu có thể viết luận văn và nói chuyện với người khác. Cứ mỗi Chúa Nhật cháu chỉ mong đến giờ để đi đến nhà thờ, tham dự lớp Việt ngữ, và học giáo lý.

Cháu nghĩ rằng việc học tiếng Việt rất quan trọng đối với cháu. Trước tiên, cháu có thể nói chuyện với ông bà ngoại và mọi người thân yêu. Hơn nữa cháu là người con gái Việt Nam nên cháu phải cần biết ngôn ngữ của quê hương mình.
Thật không may cho những người trẻ Việt Nam đã không cố gắng học tiếng mẹ. Cháu nghĩ sau này những bạn trẻ ấy sẽ cảm thấy lạc loài khi đến với cộng đồng người Việt. Và mất đi những cơ hội để biết về những điều hay trong văn hóa của dân tộc mình.”

After I read Theresa’s answer, I was impressed not only because she could write Vietnamese well, but also because she realized and understood what many people her age and even older fail to see. Still, Justin made a very true observation. “I think I know a few reasons why they don't want to learn Vietnamese,” he said. “It's too hard for them. The Vietnamese language has many tricks and ups and downs. The reason kids don't want to speak Vietnamese is because (like me) they are shy that they are speaking incorrectly.”

I sympathize with Justin. Right now, I work in Thailand and trying my best to learn how to speak Thai. It’s not easy. And like him, I often feel shy about speaking Thai to other people because I don’t know if I’m saying it right nor not. But believe me, when you practice enough, and once you start to understand, and people can understand you, it’s a wonderful feeling. As for us speaking Vietnamese, what else can be better than us understanding our parents and our parents understanding us?

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