Many American households are bilingual

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Dinner conversation at the Van family house has an unusual twist. A visitor might get lost in translation, but there’s little confusion when Dad asks a question in his native Vietnamese and the children respond in English.

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Yen-Hao Chen sits with his wife, Shelley, and their 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in their Augusta home. The Chens speak English and Chinese but require that Chinese be spoken at home. Elizabeth often speaks in Chinese to other Asian children.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Yen-Hao Chen sits with his wife, Shelley, and their 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in their Augusta home. The Chens speak English and Chinese but require that Chinese be spoken at home. Elizabeth often speaks in Chinese to other Asian children.

Truong and Phuvoan Van, of Augusta, flip between the languages every day, only seldom slipping into the wrong tongue. At work, they speak English, but Vietnamese is the primary household language.

“You control when you want to speak English and when you want to speak Vietnamese,” Truong Van said.

The Vans wanted their three children to speak Vietnamese more commonly, but the children gravitate toward English as they spent more time with school friends. The children’s comprehension of Vietnamese exceeds their conversational skills, their father said.

“They understand what you’re talking about but speak back in English,” he said.

According to the 2007 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. That number has increased steadily for the last three decades.

Of the 55 million Americans speaking another language, 62 percent speak Spanish or Spanish Creole, 18 percent speak Indo-European languages and 15 percent are Asian or Pacific Island speakers.

Shelley and Yen-Hao Chen moved to the U.S. from Taiwan in 2000. The couple had minor English skills dating to middle school in Taiwan but spent their first year in the country studying the new language intensively.

“I have to because all my colleagues are American. The more I speak, the more fluent I can speak, too,” Shelley Chen said.

Speaking Chinese is a house rule for the Chens, of Martinez. Even Elizabeth, their 9-year-old daughter who was born in the U.S., knows her parents’ firm principle.

“When she comes home, we force her to speak Chinese so she can be bilingual,” Shelley Chen said.

At age 5, Elizabeth wanted to speak English more often. Now, she automatically speaks Chinese when seeing other Chinese people at community events or places like the grocery store.

Spanish is the most commonly spoken non-English language in the United States with 34.5 million speakers, according to the American Community Survey.

At least 2 million people speak Chinese. French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, German and Korean have more than 1 million speakers each.


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