Was a Bane in My Immigrant Family
By Pueng Vongs
New America Media
Editor's Note: Long before the
Senate adopted a measure that would make English
the national language of the United States, Pueng
Vongs' immigrant parents imposed an "English
Only" rule within her family. Vongs, an editor
with New America Media, says that instead of helping,
speaking English exclusively deprived her family
the Senate adopted a measure that would make English
the national language of the United States. The
debate over English-only has divided a nation, and
in some cases it can divide a family.
Shortly after my younger brother was born, my parents
decided to adopt their own English-only policy.
No sooner had we brought him home from the hospital,
my father confronted my older sister and me and
in his broken, heavily Thai-accented English: "From
now on we speak only in English."
Supporters of an English-only law say such a law
is necessary for the waves of immigrants who come
to this country and refuse to learn English. My
parents were just the opposite and, like many new
immigrants, eager to fit in. They also did not want
my brother to face the same obstacles that they
had faced with their disjointed English.
My brother was born on an auspicious day, my father
said: Election Day in America. And as a result,
my father would name my brother after the new president,
to insure his success in life. That was the year
Ronald Reagan took office. Never mind that my parents
could barely pronounce their "R's." When
they said their newborn's name it sounded more like
We all agreed to speak only English in the house,
but we never guessed the sacrifices. Gone were the
nights when I would fall asleep to the soft, melodic
tones of Thai that soothed me as a child. Instead,
my father made harder, guttural noises trying to
speak English. The syllables stuck in his throat.
His voice also raised quite a few decibels when
he spoke English, as if the louder he spoke the
greater chance he would have of being understood.
Oftentimes I thought he was angry and yelling at
me, when in fact he was asking me a simple question.
The constant onslaught wore on my sensitivities
and I found myself arguing frequently with him simply
because his tone offended me.
My stepmother, who raised me and my siblings, went
the other way. She was very self-conscious about
using the wrong syntax or grammar when she spoke
English. When she talked to us, it was barely over
a whisper. Meanwhile in school, where English was
a de facto requirement, my sister and I were becoming
more and more fluent in the language. At home we
would often ask my stepmother to repeat what she
said -- not because we didn't understand her, but
because we could barely hear her. She took it as
an insult and, over time, spoke to us less and less,
creating a greater distance between a new wife and
her adopted children.
Sometimes I would listen secretly to my parents
as they spoke Thai to each other in private. I saw
them relax, come alive in fact, as the heavy burden
of English was lifted. To see them full of confidence
and ease again gave me comfort compared to the anxiety
I felt watching them struggle each day with English.
They expressed a warmth and closeness when they
spoke in their native tongue that I yearned to feel
again from them. I felt locked out from this intimate
world, as my spoken Thai was slipping away more
and more each day.
English, I'm sad to say, has put a wall between
me and my parents. Today, I am still desperately
reaching back for those lost sounds that used to
bounce off my tongue as a child. It still eludes
me, but it is a precious connection to a culture
and a land that once shaped and nurtured me.
The current immigration debate uses language as
a dividing line between "us" and "them."
But I never felt that knowledge of two cultures
made me less American. If anything, I felt more
connected to so many around me who come from a myriad
On the other hand, I feel a loss when, on the rare
occasions my parents speak Thai in front of us,
I glance over at my brother and see his blank stare.
My brother is monolingual and monocultural, with
little access to a language and culture that connects
generations before him.
My family's English-only measure was self-imposed.
There were many other immigrant families like mine
who in their eagerness to fit in did not pass down
the gift of a second language to their children.
Now that the Senate has passed a resolution that
would mandate the use of English exclusively in
official communications for the entire nation, I
wonder how many other immigrant families will feel
compelled to adopt their own English-only measures
-- and at what cost.