Untying Tongues: Special Home-Repair Project : Orange County families are working to break down barriers erected when two languages are spoken in the home and not everyone is bilingual.


Though Huong Lam's mother and father almost always communicate with one another in Vietnamese, Huong isn't able to speak much of her parents' native language.

"I understand some Vietnamese, but I can't respond in the language. When my parents ask me something in Vietnamese, I answer in English," said the 14-year-old Fountain Valley High School freshman. "I wish I knew Vietnamese, but it's a very difficult language; it's hard to remember because I'm always speaking English."

Huong has some Vietnamese friends, but says they never speak Vietnamese together. When she is with her family, however, things are much different. At family gatherings, her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all speak Vietnamese, and Huong feels left out.

"I stand around and listen to what they have to say, but I'm not able to join in and really communicate like I wish I could," she said.

When two languages are spoken in a household and not everyone is bilingual, some communication is lost, said Irma Lozano, a private practice family and individual psychologist in in Santa Ana.

"If the younger children speak English and the grandparents and aunts and uncles speak another language, these two groups of people can't really relate," she said.

In the case of adults not speaking the same language, there are also problems.

"The person who doesn't speak the language will feel like a foreigner--strange and not as connected to the family," Lozano said. "There isn't as much closeness as there would be if everyone spoke the same language."

Although there is always translation to get a point across, it can be difficult for a bilingual person to translate all of the time, and sometimes the essence of what has been said is lost.

Not sharing a language also prevents members of the household from really understanding and experiencing the other culture.

In light of the difficulties language barriers create in a bilingual household, many of today's parents are teaching their children to speak both languages, and adults are learning by taking language classes.

"Latinos, for example, are starting to show more pride and acknowledge who they are ethnically," said Lozano, who taught both of her children Spanish when they were growing up. "The families I work with are all teaching their children Spanish."

In a culture that is predominantly English, however, teaching children another language is not always an easy task for parents. Although many parents are successful when the children are young, peer pressure in later years can sometimes inhibit a child from practicing the minority language.

"Around the fifth or sixth grade there is a change, and children become more concerned about their peers and fitting in," Lozano said. "Even though the parents may have emphasized the language, the kids may decide not to use it."

Huong Lam's mother, Bonnie, 37, agrees.

"I try to talk to Huong and my 5-year-old son, Patrick, in Vietnamese, but when the kids started school, they began to lose the language," she said. "There is no motivation for them to learn Vietnamese. Friends and TV are stronger influences."

Patrick, who just finished kindergarten, used to know more Vietnamese because his grandmother, who speaks primarily in Vietnamese, cares for him when his mother is at work. In school, however, he started to lose the language.

"I speak with the kids in Vietnamese, but sometimes they don't understand what I'm saying and I have to repeat it in English," said Lam, who is a social worker in the housing field for the city of Santa Ana.

She believes that the complexity of the Vietnamese language is one reason her children struggle.

"English is much more concise," said Lam, who was born in Vietnam. "In the Vietnamese language, every word is a monosyllable, and it takes a long time to explain something that you could say in English in just a few words."

She said that older members of the family complain that her children don't speak enough Vietnamese, and she agrees. She also worries that the children will lose track of their cultural heritage.

"It's very important that they learn about the Vietnamese culture and understand where we've come from," she said.

Huong is interested in the culture and in being bilingual.

"I want to learn to speak Vietnamese," she said. "My cousin is 20 and he's taking classes to learn the language. That's really motivated me; I've been practicing with him."


Corina Espinoza is grateful that her husband of two years is eager to learn Spanish.

Espinoza, 33, who grew up in the border town of Calexico, has always spoken English and Spanish, but Spanish is her primary means of communicating with her mother, who lives with her in her Irvine home and cares for her three boys when she is at work.

"It's gratifying that my husband recognizes Spanish as a part of my culture and a valuable life skill," said Espinoza, who is a university administrator.

Espinoza's husband, Damon Jackson, 29, said that learning another language is a definite benefit and very broadening. He feels so strongly about this that he and Corina have decided to speak primarily Spanish to their 13-month-old son, Dominic, until he enters school and picks up English there.

"I've been pushing for Dominic to speak Spanish even harder than Corina has," Jackson said. "Dominic speaking Spanish puts me at a disadvantage, though, because I'm not bilingual, although I plan to be."

Jackson wants to learn Spanish so he can communicate with his son and better with his mother-in-law and understand what is being said during conversations.

Jackson has communicated with his mother-in-law generally through slow, simple English, which has made it difficult to get to know her.

"When Corina is speaking with her mother in Spanish, I often feel unaware of what's going on, and wish I could participate," said Jackson, who is in the computer industry. "I've come to rely on body language to pick up on the nature of conversations."

Espinoza's mother, Connie Monetenegro, 69, also feels left out of things at times. Although she speaks some English, she is much more comfortable with her native tongue and feels bad when she can't communicate with her son-in-law.

"I am embarrassed that I can't speak to Damon very well," she said in Spanish. "I wish that I knew bigger words in English, but it's very difficult for me to speak the language. There are some things I can't share with Damon. Jokes in Spanish are very funny, but I can't say them in English. I don't know my son-in-law as well as I could if we spoke the same language."

Although Espinoza does some translating for her mother and Jackson, she finds it difficult to translate from Spanish to English at times.

"Spanish is a much different language than English. It is more emotional and affective, while English is more succinct," she said. "Sometimes it's hard for me to explain to Damon what my mother and I have been talking about, because there's no literal translation. I feel like I often lose the essence of what was said, and that is frustrating to me."

Jackson isn't bothered by Espinoza's translating, however. "Corina does a very good job of translating," he said. "I might miss out on the salt and pepper of what took place, but I still get to sample the meal and have a basic understanding of what was said."

So that they can bridge the gap and will no longer need a translator, in the fall Jackson plans on taking Spanish classes, and Monetenegro wants to take English classes.

"My ultimate goal is to become bilingual and speak fluent Spanish so that I will fit in and won't feel uncomfortable," Jackson said.

Given the bilingual nature of the household and their different ethnic backgrounds, Espinoza and Jackson say they have an important and challenging task of seeing to it that their son, Dominic, and Espinoza's two sons from another relationship develop a healthy identity.

To ensure this, they will continue to teach their children Spanish and expose them to their ethnic backgrounds.

"At times I find myself becoming a part-time history teacher," Espinoza said. "If the boys are studying about a time in American history, we'll go to the library and supplement with books about important African American (Jackson is black) and Mexican leaders so they get a complete view of things. My mother also teaches them things about their background."


When Lisa Lorente was a child, her Cuban father and mother only spoke Spanish in the house. Though Lorente would later go on to study Spanish in college, she admits to being a little embarrassed when her friends visited.

"When I was younger, my father would speak Spanish to me in front of my friends, and I always thought that was kind of rude," she said. "I would answer him in English, so my friends wouldn't feel excluded, but he would get mad. He acted like there was something he didn't want them to know."

Today Lorente, 36, is married to someone who doesn't speak much Spanish. Though she generally speaks only Spanish to her mother and aunt, and she uses Spanish often in her Irvine dental practice, she rarely speaks Spanish with her husband.

"We might speak Spanish if we're playing around, but usually we communicate in English," she said. Although her husband has learned some Spanish through work situations, he hasn't taken any formal classes, but that doesn't bother Lorente.

"Although I think being bilingual is definitely an asset in Southern California, and it has helped me a lot, I don't necessarily want to speak Spanish with my husband," she said.

"We're living in America and I'm primarily an American. If my husband would like to learn Spanish, I'd be happy to teach him. But his not speaking Spanish doesn't bother me at all."

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