English-Only 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 of intimacy.

Last week, 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 "Lonnie."
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 of backgrounds.
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.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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