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What It's Like To Lose A Language

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born and raised

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Forgetting how to speak a language is cute at first. Like the time I was in the library when my mom called. It was dead silent and I didn't want to be that person so I quickly said in Vietnamese, "Sorry mom, I'm in the library. Can't talk right now," and hung up. But instead of saying library, I accidentally said the word for hospital. My mom called back, freaking out.

"What do you mean you're in the hospital?!"

"Oops. I meant I'm in the place with all the books and computers."

"You mean a library? Oh my god, child."

We laughed about it later. But these gaffes were happening more and more. I was forgetting how to say some really simple words in Vietnamese, like house keys, bathrobe, and even the colour brown. I would sometimes spit out phrases so odd my parents couldn't make sense of what I was saying. Before long, I realized a really depressing fact: I was losing my language.

Like many second-generation children, I grew up learning two languages at the same time, Vietnamese and English. My parents rarely spoke a lick of the latter at home, so there was lots of Vietnamese talk growing up. The typical rule that reigned in my house was, "No English at the dinner table!" By the time I was five, I could sing along to all the musical numbers my mom played on Sunday mornings, particularly anything by Lynda Trang Dai, our very own Vietnamese Madonna.

It helped that the Halifax suburb I grew up in was thriving with first- and second-generation kids who also spoke another language. We juggled our two languages in more or less the same manner: speaking English at school, speaking our mother tongue at home.

"The only times I spoke it was when I called home or when my parents called me. Once, I went two entire weeks without speaking Vietnamese at all."

When I was 17, I got accepted to a journalism school in Toronto. I packed several suitcases, said goodbye to my folks, and promised to call every day I was away.

I didn't. I could have guessed that other things would take over. School, friends, life. But I never guessed that English would take over too. It was everything I said, read, and wrote. I spent a lot of time learning how to craft the perfect English sentence. And as that became more and more of what I did, the Vietnamese I was once so fluent in became less and less eloquent.

The only times I spoke it was when I called home or when my parents called me. Once, I went two entire weeks without speaking Vietnamese at all.

I tried to hold on to my Vietnamese skills every chance I got. I joined a Vietnamese students' dance group so I could be around more people like me. I went to pho restaurants and gave my order in Vietnamese, even if the waiter asked in English. I even went to this one hair salon for a while just so I could chat with the Vietnamese hairdresser.

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Still, my Vietnamese sucked and it was most apparent during my Christmas visits home.
One night, I was helping my mom cook dinner when she asked me to chop up some tỏi. I had no idea what that was and I didn't want to ask because it'd be embarrassing. So I grabbed an onion from the pantry.

Wrong. So wrong.

"Each time I forgot another word, it was like I was a little less Vietnamese."

"What are you doing? That's not tỏi," she said. She walked to the cabinet and got the ingredient I was supposed to get. "This is tỏi." It was garlic.

She teased me and told my dad and siblings and we all had a big laugh about it, like we always do. But it was a disappointing reminder that I'd neglected my Vietnamese for too long that even mere pantry staples befuddled me.

A couple of insignificant words shouldn't matter much, but to me, it meant a lot. Forgetting a few words meant having awkward, half-formed conversations with my parents. It meant feeling alienated from an ethnic community that was strongly bound by a common language. Most importantly, it meant losing an inherent part of my Vietnamese identity. Each time I forgot another word, it was like I was a little less Vietnamese.

It's been 10 years since I moved out of my parents' house. I still feel a paralytic anxiety whenever I'm summoned to say or grasp something in Vietnamese, like recently when my aunt asked me what I did for a living (it's already hard enough to explain your freelance writing career in English).

But I'm still trying. I imagine, with good will and practice, that some day someone will ask me if I'm fluent in Vietnamese, and I can actually say, "Yes," instead of a sheepish "sort of." Not so I could impress them, but because it's the kind of answer a second-generation Asian-Canadian kid should be proud to give.

I don't imagine the other scenario: losing my grip on the Vietnamese language altogether. I know I can't be expected to have the same level of fluency as my parents, who spoke it exclusively all their lives, but it would be a fundamental loss to have every Vietnamese word I know disappear from my vocabulary.

For now, I'll talk in Vietnamese as much as I can even if it means using Google translate on every other word. At least I'll never have to look up garlic again.

This story was previously published in Ricepaper Magazine.

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