How to Learn a Language

On a Sunday morning in February, one of my brothers texted me at 5:57 a.m., Hmmm. I don’t remember how to say “yes” in Vietnamese. Duolingo says it is “vâng.” When I woke up two hours later and checked my phone, I was just as stumped as he was.

My siblings tell me that when I started school, what English I could speak was accented, like our mother’s. I learned English through immersion as a kindergartner, having spoken only Vietnamese at home until I began school. While I don’t remember learning English, I do remember Mom reading A Baby Sister for Frances and Blueberries for Sal aloud to me from dog-eared secondhand copies.

By the time I was in second grade, I consistently had the most gold stars on the “Classroom Reading Goals” poster. That was also the year Ms. Kalthoff assigned us a creative writing project: write and illustrate your own version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In my retelling, the mouse eats too many cookies and decides to go on Slim-Fast. A few weeks ago, Mom mentioned that she still has that stapled book, carefully and laboriously handwritten and drawn in crayon by seven-year-old me.

Some 30 years after I started kindergarten, my mom remains proficient in English and fluent in Vietnamese. As for me, my Viet is halting and accented with inflections that sound wrong even to my own ear. My English, however, is flawless: I can write everything from emails and social media posts to reports and essays. I can facilitate workshops and keep up with rapid-fire chat box conversations on Zoom. I can understand internet humor, which is its own language. I can’t do any of these things in Vietnamese.

In January, we had lunch at my parents’ house. The conversation was a mix of Vietnamese and English, for the benefit of my non-Viet speaking husband. My parents’ English is infinitely better than my Vietnamese — both were high school teachers in Vietnam before the war, and they took ESL classes when they settled in Minnesota in 1975.

As we finished eating, my dad sat up a little straighter in his chair at the head of the table, and said in English: “Hey. UyenThi.” Whenever he says this, I feel myself tensing up. Anything might come next: a question about how to fix some obscure setting on his ancient computer, or a lecture on why we should invest in a new furnace before our old one breaks down and kills us.

But not for the first time, he asked me a question about a recent local news headline; he didn’t have the context to understand this specific story. Together, mostly in Vietnamese, we somehow had a conversation about religion and Islamophobia and art history, even though I don’t know how to say any of those words in Viet. We talked about different traditions within the same faith and how a culture may contain conflicting narratives. At the end of our conversation, he nodded. Yes, I see now, he said in Vietnamese.

After reading my brother’s text that morning in February, I googled “how to say yes in Vietnamese” from bed, trying not to drop my phone on my face. I scrolled through a blog post, squinting at it without my glasses, and sent him the link. It turns out the word you use depends on the context as well as the age of the speaker and the listener. When speaking to peers, like my parents do while on the phone with my aunts, they’ll often repeat ừ, as the voice on the other end tells a long story: “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh …” I’ve never uttered this word myself, having no practice casually speaking to peers in Vietnamese.

Meanwhile, my brother writes back to me: I didn’t know u was a real word — I thought it was just a guttural sound. I respond with the !! tapback on my iPhone. Translation: same here.

Lately, I’ve been trying to dream a little bigger about what I do know in my first language. There are times when I automatically reach for the Viet word for an object, or an experience, or a feeling. At other times, I’ll find Vietnamese phrases that I can live inside of and feel at home in, but that don’t have English equivalents. I remember how Cô Năm, my dad’s sister, used to draw me in for a warm hug, then hold me by the cheeks while exclaiming happily: “Mặt thấy ghét qua!” Translated literally: [Your] face looks so hateful!

As I write this, it’s late March. I go home again to help my parents file their taxes, and Mom makes lunch for my sister and me. As I wait for my dad, who is meticulously organizing his folder of printed documents that he prepped for tax season, I quiz my sister: “Do you know how to say ‘yes’ in Vietnamese?” She thinks for a moment, and ventures, “Dạ?” She’s right — that is how we would say yes to our parents, elders, and people older than us. I tell her about the text conversation with our brother, and how yes is vâng, according to DuoLingo. My sister agrees she’s never heard this word before. Mom, who is listening in, explains simply: “Người bắc nói vângNortherners say vâng.

On April 30, my social media feeds will have posts from diasporic Viets marking 48 years since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from southern Vietnam. Some will reference Black April, the Vietnam War, and refugee families, like mine, who fled; others focus on Liberation Day, the American War, and the reunification of North and South Vietnam into one nation. While these posts tell different stories about April 1975, all of them will be written in the same language: English.

I have realized that what I know about Vietnamese is intricately wrapped up in who taught me to speak, where I get to speak, and who I get to speak to. I am only just beginning to learn the history of dispossession, war, imperialism, and colonialism that have led me to try and translate a word as simple as yes.

Since Cô Năm passed away, I don’t think anyone has lovingly told me how much they hate my face, but I can still hear her voice in my head. I remember the way her eyes crinkled behind her bifocals when she smiled at me and asked if I was doing well. When I think of this small memory and the literal love language she shared with me, or the learning that my dad and I do together when we talk about current events, I’m reminded that language and cultural proficiency is not just about knowing the right words.

It’s easy enough to practice Vietnamese with my family, or to try and keep up a daily streak with DuoLingo lessons. But how does one become fluent in the narratives reverberating across the diaspora? What would it take to hold the grief and pain of lived experiences while also recognizing the vast, messy, violent history that got us here? From listening to family stories in Vietnamese to seeking out and piecing together incomplete histories written in English, my challenge is to unearth the answers to these questions using all the languages I know.

UyenThi Tran Myhre (she/her) is interested in storytelling and narrative shifting as strategies for movement and culture work. She is currently part of the teams at Building Movement Project and Project Yellow Dress, and she lives in Minneapolis with her husband and calico cat.