"Quan, go home now!" (In English, but with a Vietnamese accent)!

So, there are times when being “politically correct (pc)” just isn’t going to get the message across especially when there’s language barrier.

I was reminded of this particular story this past weekend. Every Presidents day weekend for the past 3 years a group of friends I met in graduate school get together to catch up on life and share our teaching experiences. During one of our conversations about teaching second language learners I retold this story and it goes a little something like this….

In 2005 I was an ESL kindergarten teacher. Most of my students came from Spanish-speaking homes, except for little Quan. His family was from Vietnam. In fact, he had just moved to Kansas City, MO that very school year. He came wearing linen shorts, sandals, and a shirt, which I’m sure  was very appropriate in the hot and muggy weather of Vietnam. He became close friends with the only other recent immigrant in our class, except the other little boy was from Mexico, like the rest of the kids.

I noticed that Quan was feeling insecure about, not only speaking English, but that he was a different second language learner in my class. In fact, during our morning meeting I had asked all students to share where they were from. Most of my students were from Mexico, but I had a few from Honduras and El Salvador. When it was Quans turn he cautiously looked around the group and in a whisper said, he too was from Mexico. I decided to look up a few Vietnemese words like, good morning and goodbye in order to bridge the language gap between he and I.

As the year went on he spoke single words here and there and eventually got used to the classroom routines. Now, speaking to his parents was whole different story. They didn’t speak a single word in English, except “no English.” Trying to schedule parent-teacher conferences was impossible. I usually sent a date and time with Quan on a piece of paper or if I were lucky to have his aunt pick him up then I could tell her.

Well on this particular snowy day at about noon the snow was falling faster and faster. Due to the snow piling up on the roads our school district decided to end the school day early. Our principal had one condition. She said we must call all of our parents and as soon as the last student leaves we can go home. Well I thought it would a breeze afterall I speak Spanish, no problem, but then there was Quan. I quickly remembered past attempts to communicate with his parents or anyone living in his home. I thought to myself, “Oh no! Great! No one campus can translate. What am I going to do about Quan?” I decided that I would call his house and cross my fingers.

First attempt:

Me: Hello. This is Ms. Mateus from “schools name.” Im calling because its a snow day……

Resident: =something in Vietnamese= “No English!”

End of Conversation.

Great, I thought. That was lovely. Meanwhile Quan is looking at me like, “Hey, where are all my friends going?” No one in class spoke Vietnamese and no one at my school could translate. So there we were.

Second Attempt: I decided I would use key words and shorter sentences.

Me: Hi. It’s Ms. Mateus. Umm. Its snowing, so Quan can go home.

Resident: =something in Vietnamese= “No English!”

End of conversation.

Well that didn’t work either. It had been an hour since I called the first parent. Quan was busy playing with toys now and oblivious to what I was trying to do. Great. I thought. What do I do? Well, I had just returned from a trip to California and remembered my brother-in-law speaking in English with a Vietnamese accent! He grew up in a Vietnamese neighborhood in Southern California and would often times speak in English with a Vietnamese accent, along with share stories about growing up there. He said, that the only way some of the kids would understand him was if he spoke English like they did. At the time he was telling the stories I thought it was hilarous, but so not “pc.”

So, I couldn’t believe I was even considering doing it, but I was. I was desperate. Afterall, I lived about 20 minutes away and had to drive on the interstate. I looked at Quan, then at the clock. I looked outside the window and could see the snow just falling and falling. I looked outside my classroom door to make sure no one could hear me. I looked at the phone, took a deep breathe and said, well here goes nothing.

Third Attempt: I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t speak in English with a Vietnamese accent, so I spoke slowy and loudly. Horrible isn’t, so not PC.

Me: HI. IT’S MS. MATEUS. QUAN CAN GO HOME. ITS SNOWING. COME AND….

Resident: With a loud voice said something in Vietnamese and then, “NO ENGLISH!!!!!”

End of conversation.

I quickly redialed.

Fourth Attempt:

Me: With a thick Vietnamese accent-“Quan go home now.” I repeated it several times with the same accent my brother-in-law had used a few weeks earlier.

Resident: said something in Vietnamese and hung up.

“I can’t believe it! I think it actually worked!” I said to Quan. He just looked at me with a puzzled look. I was a little embarressed that I resorted to something not “pc”, but I didn’t know any other way to communicate. About 10 minutes later his mom was at my classroom door with a big smile. She bowed her head. Quan ran to her with a big smile. Shortly thereafter they went home and so did I!

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