U.S.-born Asians who speak only English are on the rise in Sacramento County. Here’s why

Estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey suggest a sharp increase in native-born Americans of Asian heritage who speak only English from 2010 to 2018 in Sacramento County.
Estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey suggest a sharp increase in native-born Americans of Asian heritage who speak only English from 2010 to 2018 in Sacramento County. Fresno Bee file

The number of native-born Americans of Asian heritage who speak only English increased by 45 percent between 2010 and 2018 in Sacramento County, according to data recently released in the U.S. census American Community Survey.

The trend rose substantially in 2014, 2016 and 2018, despite an occasional decline in numbers in 2015 and 2017.

Chiem-Seng Yaangh, advisor of Iu-Mien Community Services, said he is one of the many parents who tried to teach their native language to their children when they were young. Yaangh is a first-generation Mien American who came to the United States as a teenager and raised his native-born children in the U.S.

Along with the Vietnamese, Hmong and Cambodians, the Mien people were a part of the influx of Southeast Asian refugees to the U.S. after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. There are around 15,000 people of Mien heritage in Sacramento.

“Mien was my children’s first language, but everything changed when they went to school,” Yaangh said. His children spoke English at school, and the television, radio and internet were all in English. He described it as a “losing battle for the parents.”

“We kept talking to them in Mien, but they talked back in English. Eventually we gave up because they didn’t understand Mien and it was easier to communicate in English. It only takes a couple years before they lose Mien,” Yaangh said.

Yaangh pointed to a lack of infrastructure for parents to transmit their native language to their children.

Language Immersion and bilingual programs, available in Sacramento Unified School District for larger Asian immigrant groups who speak Cantonese, Mandarin and Hmong, are good examples of how schools can support bilingual education, Yaangh said. Other groups with larger and stronger communities, such as the Vietnamese community in Sacramento, also have their own schools teaching Vietnamese.

While the Iu-Mien Community Services offers Mien language classes every week, Yaangh said students are not motivated to come.

Losing a language could mean losing touch with the community’s culture, Yaangh said. “The elders in our community cannot be any more sadder, seeing their language and culture being lost in one generation. And it (Mien) is a language that existed in thousands of years, and in one generation it became on the verge of being completely lost.”

Robyn Rodriguez, professor and chair of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, said the data are not surprising and hold true across other ethnic groups in the U.S.

Rodriguez has a more positive view over the preservation of cultures. While languages are one of many cultural practices that are indicators of the parents’ homeland heritage, culture can be reproduced in connections such as religious practices or preservation of food culture.

The creation of ethnic enclaves also generates institutions for language production over time, Rodriguez said. For example, second-generation Vietnamese Americans may still be as active as their parents in their churches, and children who attend a Vietnamese Catholic church may also learn Vietnamese in classes the church provides.

Rodriguez noted how the aggregated statistics make it hard to reflect specific situations of ethnic subgroups. For example, the Chinese community may have more economic capital to fund Chinese language institutions. In the Filipino community, it is not unusual to speak English exclusively due to the colonization history of the Philippines by the U.S. and resulting law and politics conducted in English.

Rashid Ahmad, former president of the Council of American-Islamic Relations’ Sacramento Valley, said he observed how many second-generation South Asian Americans lost their parents’ mother tongue because their immigrant parents struggled to make ends meet and had to work long hours every day. With less time to spend with their family, the children had little exposure to their parents’ native language.

Ahmad noted there are exceptions for Arab American Muslims, as their native Arabic language is also the language of religious scriptures, so it became a religious obligation to learn Arabic. Parents also tend to send children to Arabic classes and Sunday schools.

“How closely do they (second and third generation Asian Americans) follow the faith is another question,” Ahmad added. Some may not be as observant or practice the faith as vigorously but still maintain they are Muslims. Second and third generation American Muslims also tend to seek the original spirit of their faith, common across all Muslim cultures, since religious practices in various parts of the world are infused with local culture, he said.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S.-born Asian Americans in Sacramento who speak another language aside from English increased by 13 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to the data.

The number of foreign-born Asian Americans in the region who speak English very well increased by 36 percent from 2010 to 2018. A smaller increase of about 10 percent occurred during that time period for foreign-born Asian Americans who speak English less than very well.

People of Asian descent constitute about 17 percent of the population of Sacramento County, estimates as of July 2018 from the Census Bureau’s QuickFacts show.

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Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.