On making language the rope that binds Vietnamese abroad

August 31, 2022 | 06:00 pm PT
To Thuc Researcher
Our family speaks both Vietnamese and English at home.

Which language we use depends on who speaks first. If it is my daughter, she would start speaking in English; if it is us, she would reply in Vietnamese without trouble.

Everything seemed fine until her maternal grandmother came by one day for a visit. Our daughter felt annoyed at the fact that she had to add an "ạ" at the end of every sentence.

"It's like burping after every sentence," she told me.

I told her it was similar to how she would add "please" after a sentence in English. So one day she asked her cousin "Chị, chơi với em có được không ạ?" ("Can I play with you please?").

Our daughter's story is all too common among Vietnamese children born abroad. As immigrants, our capability to use foreign languages is the most important factor for social integration. But once that process is completed, we find it difficult to teach our children our own mother tongue.

Words carry with them not just meanings, but also the culture that gives them life. Children growing up without fully experiencing what it means to be Vietnamese might misunderstand the language, or even hold unconscious biases against using it.

I knew a child who, when people told them they should get rid of the Russian accent from their Vietnamese, said it was the Vietnamese accent that had seeped into their Russian.

That is why I was so glad to learn that September 8 has been chosen as the day of Vietnamese language appreciation for the diaspora abroad.

The promotion of one's culture to enable newer generations abroad understand about it has been done by many countries including India and China.

Since 2003 January 9 has been marked as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Non-Resident Indian Day) to mark the contribution of the overseas Indian community toward the development of India.

Since 2004, the Office of Chinese Language Council International has built a network of Confucius Institutes all over the world, which help Chinese communities connect with Chinese culture.

The institutes are also a way to improve China's public image in the eyes of the world.

I once spoke with the director of an institute, who told me that it is Chinese culture that reminds a person they are Chinese and not their skin color. While I think this reasoning is a bit too extreme, I believe that as long as a Vietnamese reserves a part of their heart for their home country, that is enough.

But there is one more thing I have learned: Culture does not spread by itself, and patriotism is not an infinite resource.

Vietnam may have been among the 10 countries to receive the most remittances in 2021 -- and that number has been rising year after year -- but I believe finance is only part of the equation.

If we do not pay attention to educating future generations about their country and culture, they will learn to see them through the lenses of outsiders. And to even begin to understand Vietnam and its culture, we must start with the Vietnamese language.

Vietnamese is a beautiful language. It is not as complex to learn as English or Chinese or Japanese. When my daughter learned to sing Vietnamese songs for kids, it only took her one day to hum the lyrics. Maybe she loves Vietnamese as much as I do. But like many other children abroad, she did not have the opportunity to learn Vietnamese properly or to actually practice it much in real life.

I have often been to festivals for cultural promotion, but they are mostly attended by students abroad and embassy officials.

I hope that, starting next year, when people celebrate the day of Vietnamese language appreciation on September 8, I can see the faces of second- and third-generation Vietnamese immigrants at such events.

People can be different in so many ways, but let language be the rope that binds us all together.

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