Mammoth Mind-Pho-ness: Languages as a Catalyst for Growth

Staff writer Pho Vu ’23 untangles how learning different languages has shaped her life experiences.

This opinion piece has been a long time coming, for I have dodged it for as long as I can. People who know me can tell I can speak more than two languages — English and Vietnamese, one for classes and the other for family, along with Mandarin Chinese and Korean. Currently, I am also taking online Arabic and Thai lessons with my Vietnam-based teachers. Musing on my 21-year journey, I have unearthed a forest of thoughts buried like ancient relics.

When I reached kindergarten age, my mom put me in an English learning center. I always felt a ton of pressure just understanding what was going on in class. My attention was thereby limited in scope: My whole world revolved around the house, the neighborhood that we lived in, and the classroom. Thoughts like “Everyone already speaks Vietnamese. English for what?” occurred in my mind from time to time. You can tell that there were days when my rebellious thoughts resurfaced and were more active.

During my five years of elementary school,  my number one burden was that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I had to go to the English center to suffer for another 2 hours. I almost always stood near the bottom of the class’s ranking. At the time, English was not yet a subject in elementary schools in Vietnam — phew — so it didn’t really stress me out at the time.

But what I didn’t realize at that time was that those years were just preparing me for the next four years of middle school, where English became the main subject and things became more serious. Suddenly, all the painful years of making myself present at the English center began to pay off. Although I studied poorly at the English center, I was one of the few who had studied English in elementary school. During those four years, I spent time going around helping the whole class with our English homework. Maybe destiny was behind this setup, but this was the way through which I built and grew lifelong friendships with others. Most importantly, I fell in love with teaching — the process of helping someone learn something new, and helping them find passion for that thing. Teaching English made me believe that I could become someone who can contribute to society. Without having to wait until college, I picked up the importance of being good at something, of contributing something to my community, to really breathe easily in that space. Although this belief that you need something to be confident about and not vice versa was wrong, it kept me going.

The summer before tenth grade, I passed the entrance exam for the specialized English class of a gifted high school in the city. At this time, the school announced that all English majors would have to choose between German and French as a third language elective, and I went with the former. One year of indulging in this European language had a tremendous value on my language learning progress: it set a solid foundation for me to gauge the development of English through observation of the words that it borrowed from the German language.

I decided to study abroad in the 11th grade. My aunt was able to find a Christian school near her house. But also while living with her, the tectonic plates in me shifted again. My aunt had two boys, and the younger one was diagnosed with autism. Communicating with my cousin was just like learning a new language, with its own linguistic differences to learn from.

Going to an American high school, I absorbed a basket of new languages. Since most of the students came from abroad, they felt comfortable conversing in their mother tongue whenever possible. The hallways were filled with the static of multiple languages spoken at the same time, and walking through it for two years in a row made me believe that I was speaking less English than I did in Vietnam. Curious about the meaning of all these different languages, I decided to make sense of them by teaching myself Chinese and Korean during the remaining 2 years of high school.

A wise decision may seem trivial when it is first made. It was the college application period, and I never gave up on carrying on with the newest episodes of various K-dramas and C-dramas on Netflix. This caused me to receive many criticisms from family and friends, who asked me why I only watched movies all day. But those decisions only bloom when you stick with them, regardless of outside influences. Before Covid happened, I was able to take language proficiency exams in Chinese (the HSK4) and Korean (TOPIK) in California.

Back to reality at Amherst, there are times when I am so stressed from classwork that I just want to disappear from anything related to the college for a short time. I often ran off to downtown Amherst for a slight breath of fresh air. Using my linguistic command, I became acquainted with a Hokkien waitress at Fresh Cafe, was treated more enthusiastically by the Chinese waitress after promptly switching to Chinese when I realized she didn’t speak English, accidentally learned that the owners of Ricelicious and Taste Thai are relatives, and that Vietnamese restaurant Omi Omy’s owner is a Taiwanese woman who used to run a Taiwanese noodle restaurant before Covid.

The experience of attending a high school with immigrant and multilingual teachers, and studying with multilingual classmates, has made me understand the difficulties of adapting to a culture I was not originally raised in. I am just grateful that such understanding powerfully transformed into a sense of sympathy, allowing me to go into others’ lives and listen to their stories with all my heart.

Back to reality, my time in Amherst was counting down, and by the time I knew I wanted to set up a Vietnamese Table as a RSO, I had already packed up to go back to my home institution in South Korea. Although I will be so many miles away, I will still follow every step of the college, hoping that one day a student who can speak and write my mother tongue will take an initiative, continuing the dream.

I wasn’t lucky enough to have access to multiple languages as a child, but I’ve found that mastering more than one language is similar to passing an interview for a consulting firm. If you consider knowing the language as prestigious as a job to chase after graduation, you will be willing to go to the same great lengths as when you prep for a case.

Although my younger self wished that I could wander around the globe and acquire natural fluency, I feel lucky to have been born in Vietnam. As a developing country, Vietnam receives aid from other countries. In return, these aid-givers want people to learn their languages. To me, Vietnam is like a child endowed with too many expectations from its parents. In the past, French classes were offered in many schools in the South, and Russian and Chinese were an option in the North. Later, the Minister of Education also added German, Japanese, and Korean as electives. Because of that, Vietnamese people seem comfortable around new languages. In Vietnam, even one without proper education will try to speak English with you.

My life has grappled with many ups and lots of downs, and these experiences have been tied closely to languages. As one can sense, some hills were so high that the only way out was to go down. God bless, I was able to pick myself up off the ground every time I fell. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise, perhaps risks are meant to be taken, and the difficulties at that time were what was needed for a fruitful happy ending. At Amherst, I really struggled to learn a new layer of English. Everyone here also speaks English, but a more advanced kind of English, and I have never been in an environment where everyone speaks at this same level. Honestly, I was very sad during my time here because I couldn’t fully understand everyone’s conversation, but I have faith that my time here has laid the groundwork for brighter days.

This is a long-winded letter (which is understandable considering I’ve waited years to write about this), and I think it reflects how long the road has been. I am grateful that on this journey of many destinies, I have used the privilege of my free will to achieve the results I desire. This is important and good news that I want to share with everyone.

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