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Untying Tongues: Special Home-Repair Project : Orange County families are working to break down barriers erected when two languages are spoken in the home and not everyone is bilingual.


Though Huong Lam's mother and father almost always communicate with one another in Vietnamese, Huong isn't able to speak much of her parents' native language.

"I understand some Vietnamese, but I can't respond in the language. When my parents ask me something in Vietnamese, I answer in English," said the 14-year-old Fountain Valley High School freshman. "I wish I knew Vietnamese, but it's a very difficult language; it's hard to remember because I'm always speaking English."

Huong has some Vietnamese friends, but says they never speak Vietnamese together. When she is with her family, however, things are much different. At family gatherings, her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all speak Vietnamese, and Huong feels left out.

"I stand around and listen to what they have to say, but I'm not able to join in and really communicate like I wish I could," she said.

When two languages are spoken in a household and not everyone is bilingual, some communication is lost, said Irma Lozano, a private practice family and individual psychologist in in Santa Ana.

"If the younger children speak English and the grandparents and aunts and uncles speak another language, these two groups of people can't really relate," she said.

In the case of adults not speaking the same language, there are also problems.

"The person who doesn't speak the language will feel like a foreigner--strange and not as connected to the family," Lozano said. "There isn't as much closeness as there would be if everyone spoke the same language."

Although there is always translation to get a point across, it can be difficult for a bilingual person to translate all of the time, and sometimes the essence of what has been said is lost.

Not sharing a language also prevents members of the household from really understanding and experiencing the other culture.

In light of the difficulties language barriers create in a bilingual household, many of today's parents are teaching their children to speak both languages, and adults are learning by taking language classes.

"Latinos, for example, are starting to show more pride and acknowledge who they are ethnically," said Lozano, who taught both of her children Spanish when they were growing up. "The families I work with are all teaching their children Spanish."

In a culture that is predominantly English, however, teaching children another language is not always an easy task for parents. Although many parents are successful when the children are young, peer pressure in later years can sometimes inhibit a child from practicing the minority language.

"Around the fifth or sixth grade there is a change, and children become more concerned about their peers and fitting in," Lozano said. "Even though the parents may have emphasized the language, the kids may decide not to use it."

Huong Lam's mother, Bonnie, 37, agrees.

"I try to talk to Huong and my 5-year-old son, Patrick, in Vietnamese, but when the kids started school, they began to lose the language," she said. "There is no motivation for them to learn Vietnamese. Friends and TV are stronger influences."

Patrick, who just finished kindergarten, used to know more Vietnamese because his grandmother, who speaks primarily in Vietnamese, cares for him when his mother is at work. In school, however, he started to lose the language.

"I speak with the kids in Vietnamese, but sometimes they don't understand what I'm saying and I have to repeat it in English," said Lam, who is a social worker in the housing field for the city of Santa Ana.

She believes that the complexity of the Vietnamese language is one reason her children struggle.

"English is much more concise," said Lam, who was born in Vietnam. "In the Vietnamese language, every word is a monosyllable, and it takes a long time to explain something that you could say in English in just a few words."

She said that older members of the family complain that her children don't speak enough Vietnamese, and she agrees. She also worries that the children will lose track of their cultural heritage.

"It's very important that they learn about the Vietnamese culture and understand where we've come from," she said.

Huong is interested in the culture and in being bilingual.

"I want to learn to speak Vietnamese," she said. "My cousin is 20 and he's taking classes to learn the language. That's really motivated me; I've been practicing with him."


Corina Espinoza is grateful that her husband of two years is eager to learn Spanish.

Espinoza, 33, who grew up in the border town of Calexico, has always spoken English and Spanish, but Spanish is her primary means of communicating with her mother, who lives with her in her Irvine home and cares for her three boys when she is at work.

"It's gratifying that my husband recognizes Spanish as a part of my culture and a valuable life skill," said Espinoza, who is a university administrator.

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