I remember, as a child, asking my mother ‘what language do you dream in?’ She told me she used to dream only in Vietnamese, and then when she came to Australia, and began to speak mainly in English, her dreams started to play out in ‘only English’.
My parents came to Australia, each from different continents. They were young when they met, and had only been in Australia for a few years before they were married. They spoke to each other in English, and their use of it, back then, was mediocre, to say the least. Neither of them had found communities from their home countries, and so both had stopped using their ‘mother tongue’.
My siblings and I were raised speaking English. This always felt to me like the short end of the stick. Languages can offer so much, knowing more than one can help a person in their travels, open up job opportunities, it’s even said people who speak more than one language are generally smarter than those who do not.
Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed my mother struggle to be ‘heard’ through her accent – even though to me, what she said was clear and obvious. Sometimes people would raise their voices at her, questioning loudly ‘you want what?’, or ‘I don’t understand you’, as if having an accent is a sign of a hearing impairment. Sometimes people would be much meaner, treating her as if she was an inconvenience, shaking their heads and grumbling before replying to her in short, angry sounding sentences.
It was years before Mum made contact with other Vietnamese-Australians, and as she slowly began to interact more and more with the community, it became exceedingly apparent that through her years of speaking, and dreaming, only in English, she had lost a lot of her Vietnamese language.
‘How come you don’t speak good Vietnamese?’ she’d be asked.
‘Is your father from somewhere else?’
Over the next few years mum became determined to relearn ‘her language’. She started searching for a Vietnamese-to-English dictionary. It was the early 1990’s, and the internet had not yet blossomed into the source of all-human-information that it is today. No online language sites, no bookstores ‘delivering to your door’, no language apps to be downloaded.
Mum searched through local bookshops, at the time most only catered for the main-est of mainstream, among the rows of Mills and Boon novels there were no Vietnamese-to-English dictionaries to be found.
Then, one day, when it seemed Mum finally retired into language limbo, it happened. I returned home from school not to find her in her usual location, creating wonderfully delicious smelling, hearty after-school-Vietnamese snacks, but nestled into the couch. She looked up at me,
‘Look what I found today!’ she said, holding up an ancient-looking green book.
‘What is that?’ I asked her.
‘It’s my Vietnamese-English book!’ she declared.
‘You found one! Where did you get it?’
‘I bought it from the man at the Asian food shop,
‘I went and bought some dried squid, and I just asked him – can you order me a dictionary from Vietnam? He told me ‘I have one’! He said he never uses it. He said I can buy it!’
I walked over and stood beside the couch. Mum passed me the heavy, fabric bound book. I ran my fingers over the gold pressed writing on the cover. I flipped it over and inspected the back and the spine. I was surprised by its age, in my mind, a dictionary like this would certainly be a far more modern invention. I opened up the cover and inspected the print, I ran my fingers across the thin, delicate pages. I felt a sharp slap across my backside.
‘Alright! That’s enough. Give it back now!’ Mum demanded.
I closed the cover and did what I was told.
‘I can’t believe you actually got one, Mum.’
‘See! When your mum puts her mind to something, she never gives up!’
Mum’s language soon returned, thanks to the help of that ancient green Vietnamese-to-English manuscript. And, after a more few years, Mum even began teaching English as a language to Vietnamese students, at the local TAFE college.
I asked the other day, ‘Mum, what language do you dream in?’
She told me, ‘I don’t pay attention to the language anymore, I just dream’.