I only met Chau once in Belgium, where we were slated to complete a Master’s program at KU Leuven, but she was faster to leave the program than I was! Luckily before she left we connected online and I realized that we had loads in common – Currently Bay Area-based, Chau is a two-time study abroad veteran (like yours truly), having studied in Taiwan and in Barcelona, and is a freelance writer for various online publications. She also writes up a storm on her WordPress blog, The Traveling Cherub, where she writes about travel, musings, culture, and food. Sound familiar? And, fun fact, she also spent middle school being homeschooled on a commune in rural Missouri with her Vietnamese-American mother! I met up with Chau on my first day ever in San Francisco (exactly one week ago!) where we clearly had lots to chat about, and being a bilingual Vietnamese-American, I recruited her for a feature on Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals. So please let me have the pleasure of introducing to you Chau, a fellow language-lover, world traveler, writer extraordinaire, foodie, and krav maga addict!
What’s your name (accents, characters and all)?
Lê, Diễm-Châu Sarah-Sophia
Where were you born?
What’s your mother tongue? What other languages do you speak?
Vietnamese; English followed very quickly after when I was about 4 or 5. I speak some Mandarin and Spanish as well.
Where did you grow up?
I spent about a decade in Biloxi, and moved to Portland, OR where I attended high school and college. I don’t consider Biloxi my “hometown” since my education, friends, and memories all remain in Portland, as well as cultural teachings.
When/how did you learn to speak English? Was it a hard and painful process?
English came very organically, even though my mom made specific effort to speak to me only in Vietnamese as a child. She came to the United States when she was about 10 years old, and picked it up quickly. She knew that growing up in the States would be enough exposure to English that there was no way I could NOT learn it; she was more concerned about how much Vietnamese I would remember once I fully integrated into American culture. So even though my first language was Vietnamese, I organically began speaking English at 4 or 5 without a problem, and it quickly became my first natural language.
What language do you think in? Dream in?
Definitely English. I dream, think, muse, and argue with myself all in English. It takes a lot of effort to now think in Vietnamese. However, I DO count in Vietnamese – it’s a lot easier – one syllable for each number.
What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue? What about with the other languages?
Food names, my grandparents…I still use Vietnamese to express hunger or basic needs (to my family). At home, we speak “Vinglish,” mixing both languages up, like “Con đi take a shower,” which pretty much means, “I’m (the child – Vietnamese has different pronouns depending on who you’re addressing) going to ‘take a shower.’” If I’m arguing or getting impassioned with my family, then I revert to Vietnamese – it’s odd, because it feels more expressive and less aggressive, even when I’m yelling my head off. Even though I naturally think in English now, I don’t feel as authentic speaking English to my family.
What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in?
I’m definitely most proficient in English, speaking, reading, and writing. However, Vietnamese feels more emotionally secure; it’s familiar and comforting.
Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what?
So many things! Like pronouns: if I’m speaking to my mother, I call myself “con” which means “child”. When speaking to my grandma, I use “chau” (different pronounciation from my name without certain symbols, haha) which means “grandchild”. However, the term “chau” isn’t isolated to just your grandparents, you would use that term to anyone, related or not, who is the same age as your grandparents. “Em” is used if you’re a younger sibling speaking to an older sibling, but it’s also the same term you use when talking to your partner – if you’re female a/or younger. The male in the relationship would never call himself “em”. Don’t ask me what you would say if it’s a same-sex relationship, the language isn’t the most politically correct or modern.
Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings?
My mother speaks English; she graduated from college in the States. My dad does not, and I have to speak Vietnamese to him.
Do you feel like you have a different personality when you speak one language than when you speak another?
It does. Just by the fact that the pronouns I use are different – I’m already working in a prescribed role with each pronoun I take on. In English, you is you, and I and is I. In Vietnamese, as I speak to my father, I never say “I” because it’s taboo, I always say “the child (I)” to him. And in that role, because of the way the language is set up, there are just certain things you can and cannot say. I could never become a boss or an executive using the language that I use with my father, because it’s too diminutive.
Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?
I used to as a child, but I got over it in college, especially after meeting so many people from different countries, especially Europe, where it’s so common.
Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now?
Absolutely, I’m always told that I “Speak quite well – for an American-born Vietnamese, that is.” They can hear my accent – because I didn’t grow up in Vietnam, I lost a lot of the rhythm that is so unique to a native speaker.
Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did you choose it?
Vietnamese is one of the simplest languages – once you get the hang of it! I’m going to teach you the verb/adverb/everything word that you’ll here time and time again, and will give your sentences movement: “di” which literally means “to go”.
Di an = go eat/let’s eat/eat
Di ngu = to go to sleep/sleep
Di ra ngoai = to go outside/go outside
So many variations and so many ways to use the word “di” I love it! And if you want to make something emphatic, or turn it into a command, you just add “di” at the end of the sentence, like this “Di ngu di,” which is “Go to sleep!”
A naughty word?
“Cui bap” which literally means “corn cob.” It’s pretty much an endearing way to say “stupid.”
Please translate “Alice’s blog is amaaaazingly interesting and the lazy fox jumped over the brown dog”.
Blog cũa Alice hai qúa, va con cáo nhãi qua con chó mầu đên
OR a more updated way, “Blog của Alice hay quá, và con cáo lười nhảy qua con chó nâu.”
And anything else you would like to add!
My mom used to pretend that she didn’t or understand English for the longest time, in order to convince me to speak only Vietnamese for as long as possible. But of course I was learning it by just being around people and watching TV. When I was about 6 years old, I heard my mom talking to my aunt – in English – and then it hit me. “Mom, you DO speak English.” She looked a little sheepish, but obviously was wondering when I’d figure it out. I am ashamed to say that I would probably do the same to my own kids, since that’s the only way I’ve retained this much Vietnamese so far, so it’s an effective tactic! (Thanks, mom).
Thanks Chau for participating!