Explore Key Topics - Social Issues - Linguistic Challenges

Some Southeast Asian Americans were fluent in English before they arrived, but many others had no knowledge of English. The 2000 U.S. Census reports that the percentage of linguistically isolated households, meaning no one age fourteen or older speaks English very well, is 32 percent for Cambodians, 35 percent for Hmong, 32 percent for Laotians, and 45 percent for Vietnamese.

Learning English
Some opportunities existed for English language classes in the refugee camps and upon initial arrival. In most cases, once the refugees became settled, employment and family needs made it difficult for them to attend language classes. Even with the availability of courses, learning a new language is demanding for those who are not literate in their own language or who had limited formal education in their homelands. Many first-generation Southeast Asian Americans rely on finding jobs that do not require English-language skills. These are often low paying jobs, including jobs in the ethnic enclaves.

A New Role for Children
For the younger generation, especially those born in the United States, learning English is a much easier process. With exposure to English at school and through television, children readily absorb the language, even though the ethnic language is still spoken in the household. In bilingual households it is common to observe parents speaking the heritage language to their children and the children responding in English. Bilingual children whose parents speak no English often become the interpreters and translators for their monolingual parents, thus taking on adult responsibilities at an early age. They help their parents communicate with social workers, medical professionals, teachers, and landlords, and assist with paperwork for financial transactions and other complicated legal matters. This reversal of the parent-child role creates challenges to the traditional power structure of the family and to the parents’ authority.

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