Forgetting a Language, and Learning it Anew As an adult, Pueng Vongs is relearning how to speak her native language. When she was a child, her family emigrated to the U.S. from Thailand. Isolated from other Thais in the Midwest, her parents decided that they should speak only English in their home.
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Forgetting a Language, and Learning it Anew

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Forgetting a Language, and Learning it Anew

Forgetting a Language, and Learning it Anew

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We are meeting students and their teachers this week. And today, Pueng Vongs tells us her story. She was born in Thailand and raised in the U.S. Even though Thai was the first language she spoke, once her family moved they spoke only English.

So as an adult living in San Francisco, she decided to become a student of her native language. She found teachers at a local Buddhist temple. Along with teaching her Thai, they have also taught her that immigrant parents aren't always the best people to pass along their language and culture to their more American children.

PUENG VONGS: I spend my Sundays in Thailand, the school that's hard to miss, the only Victorian on the block with colorful blue and green paneling and a gold banister that ends in a dragon tail. In the backyard, women are preparing for the weekly food fair.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: They fuse hot chili, basil and fresh vegetables together, just as the street hawkers do on the crowded streets of Bangkok.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: I come here to reclaim my connection to a culture I left behind when my family moved from my native Thailand. In our rush to assimilate, my parents decided to replace Thai with English. My connection to Thailand waned. Now I find I no longer remember words that I used to know. An important part of my past is being erased.

Most of all, I feel the loneliness. When I enter a room with other Thais, there are only a few seconds when I feel like I belong, but it's over when I open my mouth and English comes tumbling out. So I began to relearn the Thai language.

My teacher, Siria Lichinatsiden(ph), her short Thai name is Gift. She's a volunteer who teaches Thai to both children and adults. She, too, is from a Thai family and brought up in America. But unlike me, her parents insisted that she take classes at the temple. Gift says it helps her stay close to her family.

Ms. SIRIA LICHNATSIDEN: Because I started to be able to speak Thai more fluently with them and my cousins, it gave me a leeway into a world that I wouldn't have otherwise because they were always working. And I think a lot of immigrant families, they'll have that too.

VONGS: I envy the way she moves seamlessly between the two languages and cultures. She says this is what she's teaching the children, too.

Ms. LICHINATSIDEN: You know, you're also dealing with a lot of them developing. With kids, you're part of how they're going to view themselves in the world in pertaining to their culture. It's also the way that that they're going to relate to their families, how they deal with the stereotypes when they grow up, about being Thai, how they deal with just who they are and where they fit in.

VONGS: Gift says the kids relate to her better because she's both American and Thai. Thai lessons may help children connect with their parents, but the lessons can't always come from them, says Gift.

Ms. LICHINATSIDEN: I think it's like any parent like trying to teach them, their kids how to drive, they probably can drive really well. But you might not be the best person to be teaching your own kids how to drive a car.

VONGS: There's an internal tug of war between Thai and English when you're younger, says Verda Chatakun(ph). She came to school at the temple when she was six.

Ms. VERDA CHATAKUN: My Thai vocabulary is based in the kitchen. It's based with gossip, and it's based in dance movements and body parts. And if were to read a Thai newspaper or listen to a Thai lecture, I probably wouldn't get very far. If I were to have a doctor's appointment in Thai, it'd be really difficult. It's hard to keep it up when television and media and school, 80 percent of your life is in English.

VONGS: At Verda's dance class, an exchange student from Thailand is teaching the younger kids a Thai folk dance. But I am struck by the young girls practicing in the corner. I watch the shadows of their bent torsos and craned necks as they sway slowly in Royal Khon dance style.

(Soundbite of music)

VONGS: My mother used to show me how to curl my fingers and tilt my head just like these girls. I followed begrudgingly, and before long the lessons stopped. Those old-fashioned moves had no meaning to me in my new world filled with skateboards, "Fantasy Island" and Andy Gibb. At the time, I thought I had to choose between my American lifestyle and my Thai heritage. What these kids are learning is that you can embrace both.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: And they're not doing it alone. Verda says she looks forward to coming to the Thai temple each week to hang out with other Thai kids like her. Before long, the community at the temple became her family and she considers it home.

Ms. CHATAKUN: In Thai culture, you call everybody - regardless of their biological relationship to you - everybody's your aunt, everybody's your uncle, everybody's your cousin. And just being here every Sunday, it's just like, oh I'm going to visit my family here. It's just that weekly obligation of, you know, seeing your aunts and your cousins or whatever.

VONGS: I realize that this was the missing piece for me growing up in the Midwest. My family did not have the support of a community, classes, a temple. In our isolation, my parents made the decision that it was better to adapt to our new culture. They knew the difficulties of not speaking well in America. So eventually, they began speaking to us strictly in English and a language barrier divided us.

Because of my parents' limited command of English, our communications were relegated to practical things like chores and school. I missed the soothing sounds of Thai to fill in the gaps on how we were feeling and to pick us up when we faltered. But when my parents thought they were alone, I would sometimes heard them speak to one another in Thai. In that moment, I felt a sense of warmth and intimacy with them. Today, I'm desperate to restore that.

I returned to Thailand recently equipped with my Thai lessons. I was determined to speak Thai and pass as Thai. The strongest test - bargaining.

(Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: At the Mabungkong(ph) Market, I reached for my Thai to haggle for silk coin purses.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: Okay.

The woman remains firm in her price. I give in, but I think I passed as Thai. At any rate, I think it's a victory that she didn't once speak to me in English.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking Thai)

VONGS: At the temple before each lesson day, students line up for the Thai National Anthem. I tower over most of them. They sing the complicated Thai phrases routinely, but my mouth stays shut. I'm still not quite that advanced. I must admit that I'm a little jealous of their knowledgee at such an early age. But a we watch the unfurling of both the Thai and American flags, I am also inspired. When I was growing up, my family believed that you had to sacrifice one culture for the other. One of the things the students are learning is that you can keep both.

(Soundbite of song, "Phleng Sansoen Phra Barami")

BLOCK: Pueng Vongs lives in San Francisco. She's an editor with New American Media.

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