Lost in translation

Dang Ngoc in her kitchen
Vietnamese refugees who have settled in Australia in the four decades since the Communist forces took Saigon, fear that younger community members are forgetting their heritage. Chau Nguyen reports

Some first generation refugees and migrants who came to Australia seeking freedom from the war in Vietnam now worry that the younger generation is losing touch with its language and culture.

Forty years since Communist forces captured Saigon, many in the Vietnamese community remain grateful to Australia for providing them and their families with better lives.

But at a time that census figures show a nearly six per cent increase of households speaking English at home rather than Vietnamese in five years, some worry about their ties to their heritage.

Among the more recent arrivals, Dang Ngoc, now in her 80s, spent most of her life in Vietnam, only moving to Australia a few years ago to be with family.

“Speaking Vietnamese is the only way I can communicate with my grandchildren,” said Mrs Dang, interviewed in Vietnamese. “It is hard because messages are lost in translation.

“It is also difficult because I do not know any English, while my grandchildren do not know enough Vietnamese. I hope they do not forget anything they learn.”

However, as younger generations focus on their education and other aspects of life in an English-speaking country, some talk of a loss sense of the culture and lack of pride of Vietnamese as a language.

Tam Doan is a 40-something LOTE (Languages Other than English) teacher who took refuge in Australia in the 1980s and has a masters degree in education.

“I’ve retained my knowledge of Vietnamese while learning English as a teenager,” Mrs Doan said. “I think a lot about the future of my culture and language. It’s my identity.

Tam Doan
“I want him to be able to pass it on. The language is our pride” – Tam Doan at home with son, Alex.

“Sadly, Australian-born Vietnamese kids won’t fully comprehend the language. They’ll only ever learn enough to get by. But it’s not enough to grasp the culture behind it.”

Since language is crucial to a culture, Mrs Doan, is keen to ensure her young son, Alex, learns basic conversational skills at home.

But she said she feared that due to the influences of social media, TV and and communication with peers – all in English – remembering Vietnamese terms becomes difficult and by high school many young Vietnamese opt to just speak English.

Between the 2006 and 2011 census, there has been an increase of 5.6 per cent in Vietnamese households speaking English at home rather than Vietnamese, which Mrs Doan says is worrying.

“I have a young son who speaks Vietnamese at home and learns English at school. I want him to be able to pass it on. The language is our pride.”

“English may be one of the most spoken languages in the world, but I won’t let it become dominant in my life or future generations.”