Vietnamese as a Second Language

Lunchtime at Hoa Mai on Jan. 11. (Photo by Christina Twu)
Lunchtime at Hoa Mai a bilingual preschool in Seattle. (Photo by Christina Twu)

I was born and raised in Vietnam, and by the time I grew up, dual language and English schools started to appear almost everywhere in my city. The market for these schools was big, since parents were well aware of the importance of a second language.

My parents signed me up for a weekend English school when I was eight. For the next ten years, I was constantly enrolled in various different after-school English classes. I must have been to at least ten different English schools, ranging from big institutions with expensive fees, to smaller classrooms where everyone had to sit so close to each other that the room always smelled like feet.

I understood that English was this big, important thing that I needed to know, especially if I wanted to study abroad in the future.

And, indeed, I ended up flying to America for college. One of the things my friend back home would tease me with was that I could eventually forget Vietnamese one day. We all knew that was impossible, but I did think at that time that my mother tongue had no significance here in America.

I wondered: Why would anyone in an English speaking country want to learn Vietnamese?

The appearance of dual-language schools in Seattle proved me wrong. In the beginning of 2016, Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool, the first Vietnamese-English bilingual child development center in Seattle opened.

The demand for such programs could be growing. The number of children from immigrant households enrolling in early childhood programs has been increasing since 2005 and the trend is expected to continue into the next decade, according to Jerlean Daniel and Susan Friedman in the article “Preparing teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse children.” The 2000 census also shows that the number of children in immigrant families grew by 63 percent in just 10 years.

Besides the growing number of immigrant families, Seattle also is home to a large number of Vietnamese Americans: 43,746 in King County, according to Pew Research Center. Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans are 12 percent of the total Asian population in King County, making it the forth largest Asian/Asian American group, after Chinese, Filipino and Indian.

In Hoa Mai preschool, the Vietnamese language and culture is taught through many different channels. Besides classroom activities, children also have access to Vietnamese books and music.

“The majority of the lunches also feature Vietnamese dishes,” said Gloria Hodge, Hoa Mai preschool’s center director. “This way, mealtime is also an opportunity for the children to learn and practice Vietnamese and, at the same time, be exposed to the Vietnamese culture while receiving healthy meals.”

Example of a verb-tense wheel, similar to the one I used in learning English.
Example of a verb-tense wheel, similar to the one I used in learning English.

The teaching method that Hoa Mai uses reminds me of when my dad taught me English when I was around 10. Everyday before lunch, he would sit me down and we dove into English books and worksheets.

He made me carry a verb-tense wheel around the house all the time, and encouraged me to use English whenever I could. Out of nowhere, my dad would point at random fruit and ask me its name, or sometimes he would greet me in English.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was the first time I was truly submerged in this language. “You have to use the right verb tense, even when you sleep-talk,” he said.

Non-Vietnamese kids at Hoa Mai preschool seem to be going through the same linguistic and cultural submersion like I did.

“With a dual-language model, it is important for the center to keep a 50/50 model to be successful,” said Gloria Hodge, Hoa Mai preschool’s center director. “Meaning 50 percent of the children are native speakers and the other half are non-native speakers.”

Hodge said that non-native Vietnamese speaking families are interested in Hoa Mai because it’s an opportunity for their children to learn another language. These families know and value the benefits of a bilingual education. With the large number of Vietnamese living in the Seattle area, knowing the language would benefit the children’s future, Hodge said.

The Vietnamese language is not only taught in the preschool level. White Center Heights Elementary School in the Highline School District also welcome students to their own dual-language programs and includes the Vietnamese language.

Highline Public Schools Dual Language – Vietnamese from Highline Public Schools on Vimeo.

Anh Luong, second grade Vietnamese/English teacher, said that while most of the students from her class are from Vietnamese families, about one quarter of her class is from different heritages. Though it is much harder to teach kids whose families aren’t already communicating in Vietnamese, Luong said that it’s also an interesting process to see how quickly kids adapt.

“One time, one of my non-native Vietnamese students wrote a four-word sentence in Vietnamese, and I was so amazed,” Luong said. “He built a whole sentence, all by himself, without my help!”

Both Hoa Mai preschool and White Center Heights Elementary encourage children to embrace diversity, and prepare them for a workforce where bilingualism is highly demanded. Is there another reason behind why parents would choose Vietnamese over other languages, or simply only focusing on English alone?

Ăn Đu Đủ, an Australian entertainer, is famous for his Vietnamese vlogs and songs on Youtube. Ăn Đu Đủ travelled to Vietnam in 2009, and started picking up a few words and phrases, but the communication was still difficult for both the speaker and the listener.

“Even though I was butchering the language, the locals really appreciated my effort and encouraged me to keep on trying,” he said. “At times I was frustrated that I could not communicate my thoughts and feelings, this only motivated my to try and properly study the language.”

Now Ăn Đu Đủ has more than 36,000 subscribers on his Youtube channel, where he’d talk to his fans in Vietnamese, provides English lessons and original Vietnamese songs. He said that even though many of his friends choose to learn more “universal” languages, like Chinese or Spanish, there is still something more rewarding about learning the Vietnamese language. In his recent vlog, Ăn Đu Đủ said that Vietnamese was the language of love.

“I have had all types of reactions when Vietnamese hear me speak in their language, some have even literally fallen over out of shock,” he said. “Of course the greatest benefit for me is that I can normally get a great discount on a bowl of phở when we go out for Vietnamese food.”

The idea of English-speakers learning Vietnamese has sparked something inside of me. I now have this appreciation for my mother tongue, not because a lot of people are speaking it, nor because it’s considered a “universal” language. In fact, the small size of Vietnamese preschool classes, or of the community of Viet language learners is what make the language special. The significance of a language is not based on the size of its community, but how it is being treated. In this case, the Seattle community is doing an amazing job of maintaining its diversity, and showing appreciation for its languages.