Song Vang dreams in English and Hmong.
While she was born and raised in Massachusetts, she said, her parents came from Laos. Her mother speaks no English, so Song, 17, speaks Hmong at home. At school, she speaks English. She doesn’t remember which language she learned to speak first.
Saturday, she joined a small group of other teenage volunteers in the community room at the Mountain View Library, ready to help teach her other native tongue at an afternoon language fair.
The teens at the library spoke Somali, Thai, Spanish, Arabic and American Sign Language. Most of them live in Mountain View.
They sat at folding tables representing the different languages. They distributed buttons printed with various translations of the word “read.” Armed with index cards and vocabulary sheets, they introduced library patrons to simple phrases and common expressions:
“My name is…..”
When Samir Akal immigrated to the United States from Egypt with his family a little more than a year ago, he spoke no English. Now 19, he speaks enough English to attend senior year classes at East High School and volunteer at his neighborhood library.
(Video above: In Somali, loosely translated, this phrase means, “How are you?” Samir said.)
He loves reading, and he was happy to help out at the Saturday language fair. At school, he said, his classmates come from all over the world.
And that’s how the language fair got started in the first place.
“We just noticed, all of our kids are bilingual or trilingual or quadrilingual,” said Giulianna Sutkiewicz, 22, the library’s summer volunteen coordinator.
Why not teach everyone to say hello in their neighbor’s native tongue? According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 40 percent of Mountain View residents speak a language other than English.
Mee Yang was born in Thailand, where her first language was Hmong. Her parents taught her to speak Thai, and she learned how to speak English after moving to the United States as a child, she said. Today, she has six siblings; the youngest is still a baby. They all prefer English, Mee said.
“There are some words in our language that you can’t express, and it’s easier to communicate through English because the majority of us speak English as our second language,” she said.
Her family moved to Mountain View about 10 years ago. Mee, 16, started volunteering at the library this year, and Saturday she’d signed up to teach a few words of Thai. Sitting at her table in the library community room, she said she felt nervous.
“There’s always a feeling like, ‘What if I don’t know what they’re asking me?’ Because I’m not that fluent,” she said. “Because you know, the language, if you change the tone, it becomes a new word. So I have to be very careful with my pronunciation, otherwise it becomes a new word, and I’m teaching them the wrong thing.”
With most of her friends, Mee speaks English. Same with Song. And while her mother speaks Hmong, she said, “Everyone else — like my siblings and everybody — they prefer English because they don’t know a lot of Hmong words.”
In Mountain View, both girls speak both languages. The Mountain View Library is a magnet for multilingual Alaskans. The branch circulates more foreign language films than any other in the Anchorage library system, staff say.
Some patrons learn English by borrowing classic films. Some come to sit and read for hours, or visit with neighbors, or surf the internet.
To Sutkiewicz, the volunteen coordinator, breaking the language barrier means strengthening neighborhood ties.
“I think that can be a really huge connector in the community, when you can even speak one or two words of the language,” she said.