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Saying the Magic Words

Some Orange County schools offer Vietnamese to help teens bridge the communication gap with their immigrant parents.

April 09, 2006|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Kristi Dinh left a note for her mother on the kitchen table. "I'm going to work. I'll be home late," she scribbled in English.

When she got home at 10 p.m., her mom greeted her with a slap in the face. She had no idea where her 18-year-old daughter had been.

Like many teenagers, Dinh has trouble talking to her parents. But her problem goes deeper. Dinh, who emigrated from Vietnam when she was 3, has lost most of her Vietnamese. Her parents never learned English.

"If it's a prolonged conversation, we have problems," said Dinh, a senior at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove. "We don't understand each other."

Mary Nguyen, 54, doesn't know where her daughter works. They don't talk about her education or her friends. They usually don't even talk about what's for dinner. She believes Dinh, her youngest child, has become too American.

"It's a hardship, and it's very frustrating," said Nguyen, who relies on her older children to translate.

But a high school class is helping improve the family's interactions.

Facing a growing cultural divide between immigrant parents and their children, the Garden Grove Unified and Huntington Beach Union school districts are offering Vietnamese classes to high school students, making Orange County one of only two counties in the nation with school districts offering Vietnamese as a foreign language elective like Spanish and French.

The program originated in San Jose in 1992 after Vietnamese parents complained that their children were becoming too Western and losing their heritage.

The language barrier had become so great that they couldn't carry on the most basic conversations.

In Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, the classes are gaining popularity. Districts have had to add more teachers and classes as students enroll.

But they are also faced with challenges. There is no curriculum or textbook, teachers are scarce, and some students fluent in Vietnamese are taking it for an easy A.

Experts say there has been a gradual effort to add language classes at high schools to prepare students for the global market. In Washington, D.C., Arabic is an option. Korean and Tagalog are offered in Los Angeles; and in Palo Alto, Mandarin will be offered this fall.

"We learned a hard lesson after Sept. 11," said Marty Abbott, a director at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Va. "We couldn't read their language, and we couldn't find translators to help us figure out what was going on. We've gone into wars with Afghanistan and Iraq without understanding the language or the culture."

For many Vietnamese American teens who have rushed to embrace Western ways, the language barrier has led to family pressures and a backlash in such shopping districts as Little Saigon, where merchants are intolerant of their meager language skills.

They are ridiculed as mat goc, those who have lost their origin.

The miscommunication between Dinh and her parents has caused family squabbles. Nguyen wrote a letter to her daughter, expressing her sorrow -- a note she needed her teacher to translate. Dinh said she had been tempted to run away from home.

"It's hard to be fluent in both languages," said Dinh, her ears double pierced, her belly peeking through her cropped T-shirt.

"I'm surrounded by Western ways. Everything I do is American stuff."

So Dinh listens to Usher and Ludacris, sends instant messages to her friends and spends weekends browsing the racks at Pac Sun and American Eagle. She changed her Vietnamese name, Kim Tuoi, to Kristi when she became naturalized in 2000.

Conflicts like these prompted San Jose to launch its program in 1992. There are now more than 800 students taking Vietnamese at six of the city's 12 high schools.

Hoping for similar success, parents and teachers in Orange County lobbied three years for classes.

Westminster High School first offered the classes in 2002, but high demand led to additional classes at Bolsa and La Quinta high schools. Garden Grove High School will start offering Vietnamese in September.

Lan Quoc Nguyen, president of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education, said learning another language would boost students' job skills. He is already seeing a shortage of Vietnamese translators.

"The political implications will be a disaster five to 10 years from now when we run out of Vietnamese speakers and we might have to import them," Nguyen said.

Students begin by learning sentence structure, vocabulary and Vietnam's culture and history.

In teacher Quynh Trang Nguyen's classroom at Bolsa Grande, a student read aloud a sentence, "Co ai nhin rat la dep."

Nguyen asked the classroom for a translation.

A student responds: "She looks hot."

"Really? Is it really sunny outside?" Nguyen asked, as the classroom filled with laughter. "In Vietnam, we use the word pretty, very pretty. She is very pretty."

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