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Communicate: Bilingual Awakening


Little-Phương
Little-Phương

Little-Phương Narrative

Kids hold secrets—lying about brushing their teeth or taking an extra cookie. As an immigrant kid, the hush-hush hides an entire home existence. So, I ingested the tônes of my Vietnamese, hidden from all, upon entry into kindergarten. I studied classmates ssssmmMMashing their consonants together and closing their words with the thuD of their tongue. I worked and worked to sound and look like the kaleidoscope of kids and adults around me. I was a mighty quick student.


I didn’t say much back then—coveting spaces to camouflage myself alongside my peers. Hiding, though, is a thing of exhaustion. Overtime, these efforts swelled into shame—humiliation for my family’s method of communication. For self-preservation, I trusted the world around me and glorified English—each syllable executed with fervor, biting my teeth tightly to hold the /s/ sound that conveys plurality and memorizing the so-many versions of verbs. I then buried my inaugural tiếng việt to stay buoyed throughout my days. Alas, with all secrets, the cost is cancerous.


Despite the grand effort to cloak my bilingualism and otherness, my days (and face) were visibly Asian. And it was eating me from the outside-in.


Being exploited to speak Vietnamese by peers and educators. Repeated incorrect pronunciations of my name. Racist comments about my name guised as mutual humor.

“Oh my! I just don’t know how you speak English sooooo well.” “Do you speak English?”


Graduate school clinical supervisor handed back a report filled with corrections in red ink and stated, “You write poorly because English is not your first language.”



Bilingual Exaltation

Phuong's classroom
Phuong presenting to elementary students.

Now, I spend my 43-year-old days as a bilingual speech-language pathologist in the United States. My work invests in honoring the sounds and language structures of faraway places. I walk alongside families, school districts and state organizations to empower Language Learners*. It appears that I’ve hit the occupational jackpot, and it only cost deposits of childhood shame.


This shift, from living my own bicultural life to empowering others’ lives, was my needed oxygen to awaken worthy bilingual-me. What has been uncovered within me in the last two decades is unapologetic fire and fervor for our beloved Tiếng Việt.


Phuong with child

As I looked back on my narrative, truths were unveiled. My environment, swathed in centering the majority language, led me astray. Questions of language, I learned, are unspoken agendas of power. The autonomy of adulthood has regifted me with my sacred Việt sounds, words and stories. This unearthing encourages my efforts as a mother and professional.


Phuong and her children
Phuong and her children
  • Educating medical professionals and educators that bilingualism does not cause delays. Rather, it propels cognitive growth and honors cultural narratives

  • Watching my children performing at their annual Tết show at Summitt Elementary, a Vietnamese dual-language program in the Austin Independent School District

  • Empowering families to speak tiếng việt, share their familial tales and engage in a truly bicultural narrative

  • Providing representation for Vietnamese-Americans through mentorship and scholarship




From this purview, I look back at bé Phương with so much love. I would share her space, make her a bowl of comforting cơm with thịt kho and eggs and let her know that she was worthy of our world.

I would understand that she existed within generational trauma, and the aftermath of this is also generational resilience.


Bilingual Joy

And, finally, there is privilege within our aches. This is the opportunity to do differently for our future. With these sentiments in mind, here are some (healing) words I wrote for our multilingual children:








All of Us

This final message is to my Vietnamese bilingual-bicultural unicorns. When we revel in this bilingual space, two languages are colliding in our brains and hearts. When they come together, I imagine, there is so much bright light that shines on our world. The glow, holding sounds and words and experiences, fuels the days of the world around us. So, for worthy us, we are surely twice as perfect as we hold and honor all the parts of us. Let us brazenly make space for the soul of our culture, our Việt language. Digest it, speak it, honor it, live it and allow the world to revel in the magic and comforts of our communication.


*I purposely use "Language Learners" as opposed to "English Language Learner." This de-centers the majority language and honors the heart of this matter--the power of our native and heritage language.


 

Phương Liên Palafox is a Vietnamese-Chinese bilingual speech-language pathologist, author and advocate. Currently, her time is spent serving clients and their families, professionals and educators across the United States. Her work has been featured in various publications including the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and content for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. With a foundation of evidence-based and human-centered practices, she is continually invested in Cultural Responsiveness, Advocacy, Narrative-Based Interventions and the Mental Health of Educators. She is the author of The Heartbeat of Speech-Language Pathology. You can find more information at www.phuonglienpalafox.com.


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