This essay is part of our “On Mothering and Language” series.
Yêu Mẹ. Love you Mom.
This is how my son—and all my children—end text messages to me. Two tiny, thoughtful words that turn my heart into mush. Every time.
My fingers tap out the response on the phone.
Yêu con. Love you son.
Vietnamese is our language of deep expression and it’s how we end every phone conversation or written message. It remains above English, flowing from lips, not only as a goodbye but as a greeting, sometimes even an apology.
My heart swells when I overhear my children teaching their friends Vietnamese words or key phrases: đói bụng, một bát cơm, sao vậy. Occasionally, they ask me questions like how to address the owner at our favorite phở restaurant, or how to say and spell a Vietnamese word. At times, they’ll play around, switching between the Northern and Southern accents or they’ll speak Vienglish to each other and to me. My youngest son recently told me, “Con don’t know why bà Platt thích con. Probably tại còn nói hi với bà.”
Mothering, especially in multiple tongues, is a slow process requiring patience and flexibility; a realization that came to me only after years of raising children.
Twenty-three years ago, I married a man who is not Vietnamese, and worry clouded my mind after I became pregnant. It wasn’t just anxiety because the journey was new; it was a nagging unease about how I would pass on my language and culture. As an adult this had become just as important to me as it had been to my parents.
Both my parents were language teachers in Sài Gòn. Mom was a French teacher and Dad taught high school English. When we fled Việt Nam in 1975, resettling as the first Vietnamese refugee family in Wichita, Kansas, my parents insisted my brothers and I speak Vietnamese at home. To them, not speaking it would be a rejection of our roots. Despite this, however, English started to slide from my tongue while Vietnamese words, occasionally even the simple ones, caught in my throat, sometimes coming out all wrong, both in pronunciation and usage.
Even though Mom is half-French, she mainly spoke Vietnamese to me when I was growing up, sometimes throwing French words and idioms into our conversations. When she sang French songs, her words were as tender as her caresses on my cheek. Once, I asked Mom why she hadn’t taught me both French and Vietnamese after we settled in the US. She shook her head and said, “Con có thể học tiếng Pháp ở trường.” You can learn French in school. She paused, looking at me, her eyes magnified to twice their size behind thick reading glasses. “Không có trường nào dạy tiếng Việt của mình.” No schools teach our Vietnamese. She made it clear that Vietnamese was our language.
I did end up learning French in school but discovered during a study abroad program at Sorbonne University that my “advanced” language skills allowed me to communicate as effectively as a five-year-old; that was when I realized that fluency required more than learning vocabulary, grammar, and proper sentence construction. It needs to be grounded in everyday life; an immersion in the culture, food, senses, and even feelings. So later on when it came to raising my children with Vietnamese, I knew I had to devise a language learning plan that extended far beyond teaching single words and how to address elders and peers.
Back then, the internet wasn’t as rich with information, and finding resources on bilingual parenting was a challenge. I leaned on my parents for help. They sent me CDs of Vietnamese children’s songs and recorded themselves praying the rosary. They asked my uncle, who lived in California, to send a series of printed Vietnamese workbooks entitled Em Học Việt Ngữ. I took one look at the books and my heart plummeted. This was not going to be easy. I needed to brush up on my own Vietnamese.
“Lúc con còn nhỏ Mẹ nói chuyện với con như là người lớn,” said Mom. When you were a baby, I spoke to you like an adult.
I was skeptical. How could a baby understand?
But I listened and watched my parents’ interactions with my son. And I learned.
Dad told stories about his childhood to my newborn. Sometimes he had entire conversations with the baby, asking questions, waiting for responses, and chuckling if the baby kicked his feet or blew bubbles. During Tết Trung Thu, Dad hooked a flashlight inside a red paper lantern and hung it from the ceiling. My son would reach out trying to touch the luminous lantern while Dad danced around the room crooning, “Tết Trung Thu rước đèn đi chơi. Em rước đèn đi khắp phố phường…”
With the baby nestled in one arm, Mom walked around the house, describing actions and everyday chores. “Bà đi lên nhà lấy áo cho con, nhé?” Or she’d stop at a window and remark, “Ối giời ơi! Hôm nay đẹp quá. Con có thấy có nhiều hoa nở không? Con thích hoa màu nào?” My parents never spoke a word of English to him.
I began using the same techniques and talked to him as if he could understand me. My sentences were simple at first. When we washed our hands under cold running water, I told him, “Nước lạnh quá.” As the months passed, it became easier, and my sentences became more complex. I noticed even my thoughts had switched to Vietnamese. Once, when a car backfired and made him cry, I pulled him close, my voice soft in his ear: “Chiếc xe làm tiếng đó vì xăng nổ trong ống xả. Con đừng sợ. Mẹ đây.”
I sought every opportunity to babble with him in Vietnamese: during meal and bath times, car rides, potty training. I made up hand gestures for “Kìa Con Bướm Vàng (Yellow Butterfly).” Every time I sang it to him and when he heard ‘tung cánh bay lên trên trời’, his chubby fingers would wiggle in the air imitating a butterfly’s wings taking flight.
When he started exploring the world around him—eating blueberries, inhaling lungfuls of freshly baked apple pie, wriggling his toes into gritty sand, imitating a lion’s roar on TV—I was next to him, giving him the words to describe what he tasted, smelled, felt, saw and heard. A new understanding dawned on me. This is how a child absorbs a language—not only through vocabulary but sensory experiences.
It didn’t stop there. In dozens of board and picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, and What Do People Do All Day?, my parents wrote in perfect penmanship and permanent pen, the translation of each word into Vietnamese. These printed treasures became my son’s constant, cherished companions, not just for reading but for teething. My own Vietnamese vocabulary for simple words like màu xanh dương (blue), cần trục (crane), or rong biển (seaweed) grew as I relearned alongside my son.
On my son’s first day of preschool, he didn’t throw a tantrum. Instead, his eyes glistened with tears that threatened to spill. “Ạ…ạ…ạ. Please…please…please.” In his innocence, he believed this little word would save him from our separation. I would not force him to go to school.
As I pried his fingers from mine, I remembered my first day at preschool all those years ago as a refugee kid, when I couldn’t speak English like my classmates and how much the loneliness swallowed me. Would it be different for him? Would he be okay without a strong command of English? Had I done the right thing by speaking solely in Vietnamese to him?
It wasn’t long before he could speak short sentences in English, his words, laden with a Vietnamese accent. Secretly, I was thrilled because it was a sign that Vietnamese, not English was my son’s first language.
As time passed, my little family grew from one son to four and my husband and I continued to raise our children in a bilingual Vietnamese-English home. Those cherished board books were staples for learning and entertainment in our household for over a decade.
A five-year age gap separates the two oldest boys from their two younger siblings. When the older boys came home from school, I enlisted their help. They would take turns watching their baby brother while I completed household chores, always within earshot. I remembered my own brothers’ influence on my language and interests, so it was my covert way to get my boys to practice their Vietnamese.
When my third son learned how to crawl, the eldest two crawled around him, showing him how it was done. “Bò đi em, bò, bò, bò. Crawl little brother, crawl, crawl, crawl.” Or they would lie next to him on an activity gym, pointing out colors and shapes and pressing the musical toy dangling overhead. They’d run off and play, often returning to check on their brother, placing wet, messy kisses on his cheek. Even though their interactions were short, their frequency, which I encouraged, mattered. When it was my third son’s turn, and only a toddler himself, playtime meant building towers of big blocks next to his brother and recounting in babytalk his favorite story—The Three Little Pigs. When it was time for him to clamber on the bus to preschool, he hugged me and turning to his baby brother, he said, “Yêu em.”
When we moved to Italy, far from my parents, I relied on two-month-long summer visits from them for my children to be immersed in intensive Vietnamese. Ông arrived each time with a big suitcase loaded with elementary language books, art supplies, and kid-approved treats—Almond Joys and Hubba Bubba bubblegum. He gave the older boys daily Vietnamese and English language lessons and taught them how to make paper kites and sailboats. The younger boys received piggyback rides while singing traditional Vietnamese children’s songs. The three eldest took turns helping Ông in the kitchen making his specialty—thịt kho and canh chua thái lan.
Despite the difference in age between my boys, Ông had a special ditty for the four of them, riddled with rhythm and rhyme. Their faces burst into grins and their heads tilted side to side to the beat each time Ông broke out in what became known as their song:
Anh Mỉnh, Anh Minh, anh ra đau đinh, anh gạp Anh Khoa!
Anh Khởa, Anh Khoa, anh ra đau nhà, anh gạp Anh Tuấn!
Anh Tuẳn, Anh Tuấn, anh ra đầu tuần, anh gặp Anh Hùng!
They snuggled with Bà at bedtime for fairy tales of talking fish, history lessons, and prayers. I’m not sure who enjoyed these nightly rituals more, them or me, as it became my habit to curl up right next to them. Because of these ditties and stories, Vietnamese words—their musicality and meaning—settled deep in my boys as well as me.
As the years passed and we moved from one country to another, I was often the only Vietnamese person in their foreign environment, and, just like me as a kid, they couldn’t help it—English dominated their Vietnamese. Even though the annual visits from my parents continued throughout my children’s formative years, I realized it was now not enough language exposure. Fierce determination combined with guilt gnawed at my gut; I was failing at upholding a bilingual family.
In an even tone, I found myself reminding them often, “Con chỉ được nói tiếng Việt với Mẹ và anh em của con. You must speak only Vietnamese to me and your brothers.”
I made them stand in the corner for one minute for every English word they uttered. Young mother me reasoned authoritarian rule of my boys was the answer. For the most part, they were obedient children and since my husband spent most of the day at work during their early childhood, Vietnamese was the only language option at home.
My second eldest came home from school one day, his face alight. “Mẹ, Mẹ, coi nè!” With a flourish, he pulled from his backpack, a small booklet he had made in school. On the front of it he had written in fat letters passport. Fast sentences fell out of his mouth, peppered with English; I learned his class had just finished studying about citizenship. My teacher mode itched to switch on, but I paused. I wasn’t truly listening to him to learn about his day. All I wanted to do was control how he communicated, quick to pounce and reprimand that he hadn’t used his Vietnamese language abilities. Was this really how I wanted him to grow up thinking of his mother tongue? There was a sharp pain in my gut. I hugged him and said, “Yêu con. Con nói đó bằng tiếng Việt như thế nào? How would you say that in Vietnamese?” He repeated everything in Vietnamese, stunning me to silence.
He had spoken English because it was easier and he couldn’t help it, he was exposed to it all day. But what if I could persuade him to choose to speak Vietnamese, making it fun rather than a demand?
It became a game we played. Instead of time in the corner, it was a race to see which child could outsmart the others when I asked them to tell me the Vietnamese translation for a random word or even complete sentences. Sometimes when that didn’t work, I bribed them with money for their knowledge. Whoever knew the word first would win one, two, or even ten dollars. If no one knew the word, they would look at me, eyes hungry for knowledge. I would laugh and tell them the word. And then they would laugh, and we would revel in a shared experience.
Sometimes, my little learners flipped it around asking me to translate something I didn’t know. My quest never ended—either by using a dictionary or asking my parents—until I discovered it.
For me now, it’s not about perfection but practice. That my children continue to speak and understand Vietnamese and that they choose it as their language of expression, makes me believe mothering in multiple tongues has been worthwhile.
Someday, I hope they’ll choose to parent their children in Vietnamese, passing on our language of love because goodbye is never the last word.
An Ngo Lang was born in Sài Gòn, Việt Nam. She currently seeks literary representation for her memoir in which she details her family’s escape during the Fall of Sài Gòn, resettlement in the American Midwest and finding her place to belong.
Besides writing, she juggles a career in acting and modeling and has made a presence in Australia, appearing in films, print ads, commercials and more. She lives in Sydney with her family. Visit An at anngolang.com.