Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Language and Communication

By Thanhha Lai

Language and Communication

[…]
Father often said
tuyet sut,
the Vietnamese way
to pronounce the French phrase
tout de suitemeaning right away. (1.12.4)

Hà's father must have had a sharp mind and good sense of humor to play with language in such a witty way.

Since starting college,
he shows off even more
with tangled words. (1.13.7)

It isn't just what we say that communicates information, it's also how we say it. So while Hà's brother might think he's just talking about things that interest him, in the words he chooses to use to talk about these ideas, he also communicates a sort of loftiness or arrogance about his own intellect.

I hold his hand:
Come with me.

He doesn't resist.
[…]
I tie it all into a bundle.

Brother Khoi nods,
I smile […] (2.7.5)

Sometimes the best kind of communication doesn't need words. Hà saw that her brother needed something special to help him begin to heal after the death of his little chick, so she sacrifices her doll to let him know she loved him. It's an actions speak louder than words kind of moment.

We have landed
on an island
called Guam
which no one can pronounce
except Brother Quang
who becomes translator
for us all. (2.12.1)

It's great that Quang can help out, but it doesn't change the fact that once they leave Saigon, most people in Hà's family have a hard time communicating since they only speak Vietnamese.

We watch movies outdoors
[…]
Brother Quang translates
into a microphone
his voice sad and slow. (2.13.4)

We thought translating for everyone might get old, and it looks like it has for Quang. Learning another language takes a lot of time and practice, so how will all these people survive in America without Quang?

Until you children
master English,
you must think, do, wish
for nothing else.
(3.2.7)

Learning English is key to each member of Hà's family being able to thrive in the United States, so the pressure is officially on. The name of the game is all English, all the time—even just when thinking.

All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth. (3.3.3)

This might feel to Hà like rolling Rs does to some English speakers: hard and sloppy.

I'm getting better
at hissing,
no longer spitting
on my forearms. (3.6.)

Progress in learning a language is slow and steady, with tiny steps in the right direction each day. How long will it take Hà to learn enough English to try it out in public?

As soon as we have an address
Mother writes
all the way to the north […] (3.8.1)

War has prevented Hà's family from communicating for years, but never took away the longing to connect.

By the time I teach her
Du du And she teaches me
Doo-doo We're laughing so hard
We're hungry for pancakes. (3.40.15)

Language differences don't just have to be barriers—here we see that they can also foster bonding experiences. Yay.

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