Two Languages In America.


Everyone knows about pho, red hot beef noodle, bun bo hue, and — as Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo of the UCLA Asia Institute put it — “the trusted spring rolls of several varieties.” We know Vietnamese food. We see it, we eat it, and – as The Times has pointed out – we wish it was as good in New York or Boston as it is in San Diego or Houston.

More people are speaking Vietnamese in this country than ever before and fewer are speaking Italian — so census data tells us, at least. In 1980, 197,588 people spoke Vietnamese at home. Twenty-seven years later, 1,207,000 people speak Vietnamese at home. That’s a 510% increase. Italian has followed the almost mirror opposite trajectory (not quite as quickly or sharply as the others, though it is the largest percentage drop of all languages surveyed): in 1980, 1,618,000 people spoke Italian at home, but — come 2007 — that number has dipped to 798,000.

Such a sharp increase in the number of speakers of a language should produce some large, quantifiable knock-on effect in the culture at large. Knowing the food doesn’t feel sufficient or enough. There should also be a solid pedagogical strategy teachers or administrators should be able to reach to deal with any language that sees a dip in the speaking population.

It feels like it would somewhat spoil the fun of good journalist detective work to say that part of the reason for this spike in people speaking Vietnamese at home hinges on migrants fleeing the Vietnam War, and there is some truth to that — Vietnamese did come to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon — but they also fled Re-education Camps in and around 1992, too. Nearly half a million altogether came to the U.S. between 1981 and the turn of the millenium. Hoa, Amerasians, Khmer, and Cham — Vietnamese all.

I recently re-watched a lecture on ‘Culturonomics’ as delivered by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden, and it stuck in my head, and it’s worth repeating: if there has been a 510% increase in people speaking Vietnamese at home, how can we quantify the cultural knock-on effects? Why don’t I know more about Pham Duy, for instance? Is it because the Vietnamese community ‘sticks somewhat to itself,’ as a study conducted by Brown University (somewhat disappointingly) suggests? Is it simply because I don’t spend enough time in San Jose, Houston, or Westminster, California?

I put that question in so many words to Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, and she said that one reason why I was having difficulty finding an answer was manifold — that “many ordinary Americans still want to forget the war that divided the nation, a war that the US lost,” let alone the backward-gazing anti-communist fervor the war inspired; that plenty of Vietnamese American culture is being produced, consumed, lived, and practiced every day, whether it’s in listening to Trinh Cong Son or in watching videos produced by the program Paris by Night; that some second-generation Vietnamese Americans have trouble reading books in the original Vietnamese, but that — despite that — it’s “alive and well among those who are more recent arrivals.”

Nearly seventeen million Italian-Americans exist within the United States. Italians have been coming to this country since the 1820’s, and they’ve had an enormous impact on New York, and I can get wonderful coffee on Mulberry Street whenever I’d like. A lack of overall representation isn’t the issue here. What the issue seems to be is that — as Rubén Rumbaut of University of California at Irvine points out in an excellent paper — “language minority immigrants shifted to English [in the United States] at a rate far in excess of that obtained in all other countries. Other studies of the languages of European and older Asian immigrant groups in the United States have documented a rapid process of intergenerational ‘Anglicization’ that is effectively completed by the third generation.”

There is an immediate inherent tension in seeing seventeen million people claim the mantle of a culture and 798,000 lay claim to the language, and — to a degree — we can see it in how we trace the language through the arc of history, too. To go from founding the Bank of America or creating the ice cream cone or helping carve the Lincoln Memorial — as early Italian immigrants did — to a young man or woman returning to Italy the way a young Irish American visits Ireland and find themselves unable to tell the difference between “Dia duit” and “Slán” must provoke some degree of anxiety and some hand-wringing and prompt people to try to do something about that. When — for instance — people were worried about the status of French in the United States, it would be hard to attend an event at Columbia like “Why French Matters” and feel like the troops had been rallied to their utmost (or ‘rally-most,’ if you want to get creative and maintain the alliteration.) So there has to be a better way.

I reached out to Daniel Suslak — a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University, who you might remember from that story regarding the final two speakers of a language in Mexico refusing to talk to each other — and asked him about effective pedagogical strategies regarding dips in those who speak a language, and he said that —

… one of the most interesting strategies that many groups of people are using is called setting up a “language nest.” It’s a pedagogical strategy that was pioneered in New Zealand and Hawaii and basically involves setting up a space where children hang out with elders (fluent speakers), play games, and do activities — after school or on weekends or summer camp style for a few concentrated weeks … This approach is especially effective when there’s a “lost generation” — parents who were sent off to boarding schools or English-only programs and never really learned their heritage language. By putting their parents (still speakers) together with their children (not yet speakers) it’s a way of dealing with the interruption in inter-generational language and culture transmission.

And it works: the ‘language nest’ has pretty much saved Maori. Pūnana Leo has had a similar effect on Hawaiian: in 1997, there were an estimated 2000 speakers; as of 2008, there are an estimated 26,000 speakers. Similar programs are being explored in Australia, British Columbia, and elsewhere. It could save Breton, if Harvard ends up teaching the language like that. It could push Welsh further along its return path. Language loss and language renewal both seem to hinge upon an intergenerational structure. By historical habit and historical fact, life in the United States has consistently tipped the scales towards English — even amongst the Spanish-speaking population — but it’s striking to think that the difference between language loss and language renewal hinges upon which way we point three generations — and that’s it.