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Passing on Vietnamese language to younger generations of diaspora

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Last month I was invited to a dinner in France. It was a traditional meal to finish the Lunar New Year ceremony at a Vietnamese family’s house.

It was my first invitation to a meal like this since I left Vietnam 16 years ago. Things that may seem normal or even ordinary in my home country are exceptional abroad.

This dinner was special. There was a ritual in which offerings were burned and sent to our ancestors for their afterlife in the hope their souls came back and celebrated Tet with us.

The hosts, Hung and his wife, work at the Pierre and Marie Curie University. He is an associate professor in electronics and telecommunications there.

Although he has lived in France for many years and speaks French fluently, he has maintained a balance between his Vietnamese traditions and a modern western lifestyle.

After burning the offerings, we gave lucky money envelopes to our children and wished that they grow up quickly, healthily and with filial piety.

Everyone seemed to have prepared envelopes in advance. They were small red envelopes, sealed like letters, containing real money. Though the children did not open them right away to see how much was inside, I was sure they were all 10 euro banknotes, the only French bill that is red and symbolizes luck in the East Asian belief system.

Hung told me: “It’s good that we keep our homeland traditions like this; let’s try to promote them.”

Three families had been invited to the dinner. Besides my friend Van’s family, who helped me know Hung, there was also Binh, who works at the French National Library. Binh is one of the people in charge of preserving the world’s largest collection of documents on Vietnamese studies, from ancient books written in the Han-Nom script to books written in the Quoc Ngu script, stored in the library.

Whenever we got together like this for tea or drinks, our favorite topics of discussion would be world events, politics, culture, and the state of society in France and Vietnam.

But that day, with the special meal full of traditional Tet dishes, we wanted to discuss a topic of common concern: passing on the Vietnamese language to the younger generation living abroad.

While we were toasting and catching up with each other after not meeting for a long time, the children at the adjacent table were also talkative. However, we conversed in Vietnamese while they were speaking to each other in French.

After observing them for a while, Hung came up with a game for the children: “Try to speak Vietnamese with each other for 10 minutes. Anyone who uses any French words will lose.”

Our children, who can speak Vietnamese with their parents at home, switch to French when they meet their peers. After a hesitant start, they began speaking Vietnamese to each other in a clumsy manner, seemingly not understanding each other and eventually ending up in silence waiting for the time to expire.

We stopped drinking and looked at each other in anticipation. Things became very quiet. Hung broke the silence after taking another sip of wine: “Our children all have Vietnamese parents, yet they can’t communicate with each other in Vietnamese. What do you think?”

I pondered for a moment before replying: “When I came here, the thing I regretted most for my children was not being able to speak Vietnamese, which is the essence of Vietnamese culture. If we can’t afford to visit Vietnam regularly to see our families there, our children may end up just like the children in the song ‘Bonjour Vietnam’.”

I mentioned the song that touches the hearts of overseas Vietnamese about children born abroad who cannot speak Vietnamese or even pronounce their own Vietnamese names correctly, and only know Vietnam through imaginary images.

Having lived in France for a while, I have many Vietnamese friends living here. And surprisingly, most of them use French to communicate with their children. How quickly they are losing their roots! It has been only one generation and we have already lost our roots.

Look at the Chinese, Jewish and Arab people: They wander all over the world and live abroad for generations, and still maintain their own culture and language. Why can’t we do that? Language is a part of culture. Without the Vietnamese language, we are no longer Vietnamese.

“Sometimes we feel powerless,” Hung said.

“As Vietnamese, communicating with our children in Vietnamese can convey the full emotion of the message. Furthermore, being proficient in Vietnamese also means knowing another language. Admittedly, maintaining Vietnamese is not easy. Without a communication environment, even those who have known Vietnamese for a long time will gradually forget certain words.

“Children who only communicate with their Vietnamese parents cannot acquire enough social vocabulary. The semantic structure of Vietnamese is one of the most ambiguous and difficult in the world to learn. Vietnamese students have a Vietnamese language program for many years before they can become proficient. And because their comprehension of Vietnamese is low, parents sometimes speak French to their children to save time. Gradually, it becomes a habit. Nobody thinks deeply about losing their roots or culture.”

Van said: “Giving up Vietnamese to communicate with children in another language such as French is regrettable, a loss of the child’s language skills. Truly, if we want to maintain Vietnamese for our children, even at a minimum level, we need determination and effort to communicate with them.

“Living abroad, of course, we need to use the language of the country as the main language to develop and integrate. We cannot help our children speak Vietnamese fluently like French, which they learn thoroughly in school, but we can at least equip them with a second language, enough to understand and speak at a basic level.

“From there, they will have the motivation to learn about their roots. There is a truth that many of us often avoid: a national inferiority complex. We belittle ourselves and do not take pride in being Vietnamese, and so we do not value the Vietnamese language. This is not something that can be ignored, but if we do not consider Vietnamese valuable, we will not want to pass it on to future generations.”

Van’s words remind me of a French family I know who currently live in Bordeaux and have a deep connection with Vietnam.

The son, Jean, was born in Vietnam and did not move to France until he was 40. His father was a French official in the colonial government of Indochina. He did not speak Vietnamese while in Vietnam though his family had helpers and his grandmother was Vietnamese.

Simply put, they were proud to be French, proud of their language. In France, tourists who come here can see that there was a time when French people would not even bother to answer in English. They build French cultural centers around the world to spread their language and culture. In other words, they see the value of their language not just for themselves but also for foreigners.

Meanwhile, there is currently a trend among wealthy people in Vietnam to send their children to international schools from an early age, even before they can speak Vietnamese, and study 100% in English. We do not consider it important for our children to know how to read and write Vietnamese. We do not see any tangible benefits.

At the table, Van continued to argue: “For children living abroad, knowing Vietnamese is actually beneficial, both in the short and long terms. Firstly, the more languages children are taught, the more their language skills develop, which makes them more intelligent.

Secondly, knowing an additional language means not only understanding that language, but also learning a new way of thinking. If a child knows Vietnamese, it means they have the thinking of a Vietnamese person, which leads to correct expressions in their mother tongue. Thirdly, the obvious immediate benefit is the ability to communicate with relatives, grandparents and great grandparents. When they grow up, they can still maintain a connection with their siblings, relatives and other loved ones still living in Vietnam.”

At the next table, our children are still talking to each other in French. They have never known a Vietnamese folk song or proverb. The history and literature they learn at school is all French. They are losing their roots.

But then we cannot force our children to learn Vietnamese, to speak Vietnamese or face punishment like teachers and our grandparents did in the past.

Only love, sincerity and, above all, persistence in communication between parents and children can help them maintain Vietnamese culture.

We bid farewell to our hosts after midnight. I returned to Paris with many questions left unanswered. How to integrate without losing ourselves. Maybe tomorrow I will convince my child to take Vietnamese as a second foreign language at school.

The older he gets, the busier he is with outside life, while we, like other parents, focus on making money.

But from now on I am determined to spend more time with my children, and talk to them in Vietnamese in one way or another so that they can feel the richness and beauty of Vietnamese through poetry and music.

By Le Quoc Anh – – February 27, 2023

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