How I never learned to speak Vietnamese

The author (second from right) riding city pedicabs with his family in Saigon, Vietnam in 2007.
The author (second from right) riding pedicabs with his family in Saigon, Vietnam in 2007.

A couple weeks ago, I was helping my mom get ready for a Super Bowl party. She was making guacamole, and she asked me in Vietnamese to get her two tomatoes.

When I handed her two oranges, she gave me her usual look of disappointment. She might have been mad that I was handing her oranges when she was working on guacamole. But I think it was more that despite my 20 years of living in a Vietnamese-speaking household, I still can’t tell cà chua from trái cấm.

This happens almost every day. And every time I feel guilty that I don’t really speak the language of my heritage.  But how much of that is my fault?

The author with his mother at Dia Tang Buddhist Temple in Lynnwood during the Lunar New Year. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Tran)
The author with his mother at Dia Tang Buddhist Temple in Lynnwood during the Lunar New Year. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Tran)

Like the majority of the 38,726 Vietnamese people living in King County, I am here as a result of the Vietnam War.  Born in Renton, WA to parents who fled Vietnam in the war’s aftermath, I am a first generation Vietnamese-American.  Growing up, the odds seemed to indicate that I would learn Vietnamese just as well as (or even better than) English.

We spoke Vietnamese at home, and I was frequently immersed in Seattle’s prominent Vietnamese culture.  Nearly every weekend, my parents took me to a Vietnamese festival or restaurant.  Most of my extended family rarely spoke English.  I even went to a Vietnamese language school in Seattle for a year.

Yet, my inner Vietnamese still hears “tomato” and thinks “orange.”

It wasn’t until I went to Saigon for a month when I was 13 that I truly realized how inadequate my Vietnamese was. Beyond basic phrases like “please” and “thank you,” I couldn’t communicate with my family and the locals at all.  I would get this blank stare from everyone. It was embarrassing, and it made me question whether or not I could truly call myself Vietnamese.

It seemed I was constantly surrounded by Vietnamese language and culture, but I still wasn’t learning the language.

Maybe there’s a simple explanation. Let’s put this into perspective: 13 years of primary education, an average of 34 gigabytes per day of media consumed, and of course the daily conversations necessary to be a functioning member of society here.  All of this is in English.

The few hours I am exposed to Vietnamese per week are overwhelmed by the constant English immersion that comes with living in America.  So I, along with all the other first generation (insert ethnicity)-Americans here are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to retaining the language of our heritage.

Despite this, I know there are many first-gens who are fluent in both English and their respective “family” language.

Trina Buiquy, who studies political science at the UW, rates her Vietnamese fluency as “80 percent.”  Although not perfect, her fluency allows her to speak in Vietnamese with family and others; leaps and bounds above what I’m able to do with the language. I got in touch with her to see if her experience might help me figure out my own story.

The author with his mother and two sisters in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Tran)
The author with his mother and two sisters in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Tran)

Like me, Buiquy was exposed to Vietnamese at home from a young age.  But where we differ is our level of involvement with the Vietnamese communities that we grew up in.

Said Buiquy, “I grew up being very active within the Vietnamese community, and being able to spend a lot of time interacting with Vietnamese speakers has helped me utilize the language regularly.”

She was active with her local Vietnamese church. Not to mention a minor pop star: Buiquy was a contestant on V Star, a popular singing competition that’s produced entirely in Vietnamese.

Trina Buiquy (fifth from left) on a promotional poster for Vstar, a popular Vietnamese-American singing competition. (Photo courtesy of Thuy Nga Entertainment)
Trina Buiquy (fifth from left) on a promotional poster for Vstar, a popular Vietnamese-American singing competition. (Photo courtesy of Thuy Nga Entertainment)

Although I have also been involved with the Vietnamese community, most of it has been passive in comparison to Trina’s experiences.  In other words, I haven’t really had to speak (and thus learn) Vietnamese in order to participate.

Talking with Trina made me realize that if I want to become fluent, I am going to have to fight for opportunities to use Vietnamese.  Unfortunately I don’t think I can make it as a Vietnamese-American pop star.

My goal of becoming fluent has nothing to do with saving the language from dying: Vietnamese is the sixth most spoken language in the U.S.

Ultimately, I feel it’s important because learning the language is the easiest way for me to bolster my self-identity as Vietnamese.

I’d like to be able to communicate with my extended family and Seattle’s lively Vietnamese community after 20 years of being stuck as a unilingual.  Eventually, I wish to return to Vietnam and do the same.

And of course, I’d like to be able to tell the difference between tomatoes and oranges.


  1. You’re not a 1st generation Vietnamese-American. That term is reserved for your parents, who were not born here. You are SECOND generation.

    1. @dangster: “The term first-generation can refer to either people who were born in one country and relocated to another, OR to their children born in the country they have relocated to.”

  2. I wish you good luck! I think it’s a real pity when the children of immigrants don’t learn their parents’ language.

    In comparison to most people you’ll have a head start, because at least you wouldn’t struggle too much with the treacherous tones and pronunciation of Vietnamese, since you have already been exposed to the language enough.

  3. I hope you learn the language soon! A few of my younger uncles were too young when they immigrated to really know English, so they enrolled in Vietnamese Sunday school, just like I did. Maybe you should do the same!

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  5. i am the same as you. i was born in Canada but my vietnamese is really poor. i can understand a bit but its mostly just instructions like wipe the table, get a couple bowls, pass the shrimp. when it comes to real conversations, im completely lost besides maybe a couple words then i try to get the context from that. it just bugs me that vietnamese bash other vietnamese when they don’t speak it. they say you’re not viet and it just discourages you more. like why would i want to be viet if you’re like that. i would think they would be more supportive but they just shun you, even when you ask for help. i want to learn but if i dont immerse myself with other viet how can i truly master it. i just dont get why. ok ya i don’t speak viet but i couldn’t later if you help me. just annoying.

  6. Great article! Although I would have to agree with @dangster.
    If your parents immigrated to America and you’re an American-born citizen, then your parents would be considered first generation while you were be considered second generation. If you considered yourself first generation, you wouldn’t be acknowledging your parents’ American citizenship.

    Maybe if you specified that you’re first American-born generation?

    Also refer to the following Wikipedia page about the definition of what a second generation American is.

    My parents were born in South Vietnam and immigrated to the US and obtained citizenship around the 1970s. Despite being foreign-born, my parents are as American as I am. Therefore, my parents are first generation Vietnamese American, and as their descendant, I am second gen Vietnamese American.

  7. My father came to the US in 1975 and was sponsored to Nome Alaska where my mom who is Alaskan Native was the baby sitter for the sponsors children. They met married and had 6 kids. They were divorced 15 years later but my step mom who also came to the US in 1975 at 11 met and married my dad at 25. The primary language became Vietnamese at home so us kids picked it up at least enough to follow commands like “get me a tomato” but until my dads retirement my Vietnamese was a challenge. At 17 I moved to aAnchorage and went around to the nail shops to listen and find good conversation. I found it and soon began spending all my free time at the salon listening and learning and today I work in a nail salon where I speak the language everyday. I guess my point is that if the language is not practiced or spoken regularly than it is lost. My 5 sisters do not speak Vietnamese, I’m the only one of us that does but it’s because I practice practice practice . I’m now 31 and speak mostly fluently.

  8. There should be some support from the educational system with Asian languages. Vietnamese language classes should be offered in school.

  9. I hope you finally learn how to speak Vietnamese! I’m encountering the same struggleI exempt that I’m French born Vietnamese. I draw comics and just created an article about my story related to this subject in my blog. I try to understand why I drop out speaking vietnamese while I was little and what’s the impact in my current life : . Don’t hesitate to check it out, comment and share :) thank you very much !

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