“You’re not using the correct accent mark!” The young tutor scolded me as I tried to complete my class worksheet. I remember fighting back tears as I tried to figure out which accent mark was correct to differentiate between bà (grandma) and ba (three). Needless to say, I didn’t last very long in Vietnamese Language School. In fact, I only remember attending three classes before I was officially a Viet School dropout.
Now as an adult, I often wish my parents made me attend Vietnamese classes. Being able to speak Vietnamese is one thing but being fluent is quite another.
Many of the younger Vietnamese-American generations, myself included, find it difficult to learn a second language let alone learn our mother tongue. We were raised and/or born in America and grew up somewhat distant from our Vietnamese heritage. Our elders and parents expect us to magically speak it and scorn us when we don’t. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to maintain some Vietnamese language skills despite having to learn English during elementary school in ESL classes, yet others had no one around to teach them because their parents were away working day and night to earn a living in America. Regardless, it’s never too late to learn.
No, I’m not implying you should return to Viet school. The idea of spending my Sundays with young children to learn what the Vietnamese accent marks doesn’t sound too enticing. Sure, I love hanging out with kids! But I would rather check out Rosetta Stone: Vietnamese edition than being put back in “kindergarten" because I can't pass the placement exam.
No matter how old you are, what career you have, or if you are still questioning whether to learn it or not - it’s never too late to give it a try! There are countless opportunities and connections waitting for you once you decide to broaden your knowledge of the language and culture. For instance, learning Vietnamese can bridge the disconnect that exists between the different generations in your family. We often find ourselves distant and frustrated with our elders, because we cannot have a conversation with them easily. By learning how to express ourselves in Vietnamese, we will be able to connect more with one another.
Knowing a second language even if you are not 100% fluent can also impress employers. It’s a valuable skill you can include on your resume to stand out among other candidates who may only speak English. Last but certainly not least, knowing another language will deepen your appreciation for our culture whether you are exploring the unknown or trying out new foods.
There are many alternatives to learning another language besides traditional language classes. Adult language classes can be more than just time-consuming, they can be expensive and ineffective. Instead, you can participate in community events where you can directly speak Vietnamese with others. By doing so, it’s given me the opportunity to test my Vietnamese while learning how to improve my vocabulary. You’ll also get a better understanding of how unique the Vietnamese culture is and possibly even discover that you enjoy it. Popular Vietnamese celebrations you should check out include Tet Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Moon Festival) and Tet (Lunar New Year). Tet Trung Thu is held usually towards the end of September whereas Tet takes places in the beginning of February.
Watching movies, music videos, or karaoke (that’s my favorite) can also help you learn. As a kid, I enjoyed watching series like The Monkey King. Although I didn’t understand the Vietnamese voice-overs entirely, I was able to piece what the words meant together and eventually applied it to conversations with my parents. Listening is an essential step to learning another language so why not listen to some music? I particularly enjoy karaoke. Singing along while visually seeing the words helps. If you are able to tune in to Vietnamese radio stations (San Jose has a couple AMs including 1500 and 1430), consider tuning in while you’re stuck in traffic or on the way to work. Keep in mind though, media outlets tend to use formal Vietnamese, which may be extra difficult for individuals who are not fluent.
Once you decide to take on the challenge of learning your birth language, be sure to have fun with it. Find someone to learn with and just dive in.
Some tips you should consider:
Learning a second language won’t be easy. Taking tiny steps in the right direction will lead you to progress. You may stumble across a few incorrect translations and words, but the beauty of making mistakes is learning from it. You’ll be proud you did.
❝One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.❞
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Jennifer "Nhu Thy" Chung
Jennifer is a skincare and fashion executive in Silicon Valley. Deeply involved with the Vietnamese-American Community, she is passionate about culture, community and family. She hopes to make the world a beautiful place and to influence and encourage others to dream by sharing her own experiences and goals.