English major reflects on struggles of being bilingual

If you ever ask me what being bilingual is like, I would tell you that I’m not sure if my brain knows that it’s bilingual. In my brain, there is no separation between English and Vietnamese. I form sentences that meld the two together seamlessly. There are so many words that I only know how to say in Vietnamese, and some things I don’t know how to say at all.

This weird melding of languages has always been something I’ve been self-consciouseven embarrassedabout. I want a language that covers all my bases, a language that I know and use skillfully in every situation I faced. In many situations and conversations, even when I have much to contribute, I have chosen to remain silent for fear that my language will not deliver me, that there will be large gaps in what I want to say. But when I try to visualize what the language discrepancy in my head looks like, I try to imagine that the two languages are parts of the same choir, with Vietnamese as the alto and English the soprano. They both are necessary to the choral piece; one just fills in notes where the other cannot reach.

I’m sure that there is a fancy linguist or psychologist who can break down precisely why my brain is so confused, but as I’ve been writing and thinking more about it, I’ve realized that the spaces where both my languages fall short is more about access than proficiency. For example, I only know how to describe the process of dissecting a worm in English because I learned how to dissect a worm in English. On the other hand, I can only teach someone how to tend a rice farm in Vietnamese because I learned how to farm rice in Vietnamese.

My language has, for better or worse, been shaped by the people who surround me. An example of negative consequence is how I respond when I’m called in Vietnamese, a much more relational language. For instance, in English, we have the standard I/you construction, but in Vietnamese, I/you is complicated by your relationship in age and gender to the person to whom you’re speaking. Growing up in Nebraska, the only Viet people I ever spoke to were my parents, their friends and their elders. So completely out of habit, whenever my name is called I respond with a respectful “dạ.” This gets interesting when my friends call me and I respond “dạ” automatically, but it’s inappropriate to “dạ” people who are the same age as you.

Things get even more complicated when I’m trying to tell stories or talk to my friends and am forced to carry things I experienced in one language to the other. Translations are always tricky and rarely an exact art, and despite my love for language, I’m not good at it. I either understand whatever is said in its original language or I don’t.

A Thanksgiving tradition in my house is to find a precise English translation for the word “vô duyên.” The word has no precise word-for-word translation nor does it have an easy explanation. The fact that this game can be played, year after year, is a reminder that a lot of who I am is untranslatable. My language exists in two spheres that barely understand each other, if at all.

They say that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. This gives me hope that if I bathe myself in both languages long enough, I can fill in the gaps. English is easy. I am privileged to have ample access to texts and media in English at my fingertips. Vietnamese is a little harder. It’s not quite as easy to access reading material and media. But I’m nevertheless still aching for things to read, for language in which to dip my tongue. I’ve been asking family and friends to ship me books all the way from Vietnam, to send me links to their favorite songs, to send me their favorite TV shows. So far, I’ve received two books, and I’m excited to get through them. I will have to live with my language my whole life. I want it to be as complete as it possibly can be.

The end of Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s poem “My Spanish” has always stood out to me. It describes perfectly what being bilingual is like. She writes, “there are letters that will always stay silent/there are some words that will always escape me.” As I come to terms with myself and my ability to express myself, there are moments I will always stay silent, just like Lozada-Oliva. There are moments my language will escape me. And I need to learn to be okay with that.

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