Terrebonne Parish school officials are considering barring students from speaking a foreign language during commencement speeches. The proposal comes after Hue and Cindy Vo, cousins who were co-valedictorians at Ellender High School, incorporated their native Vietnamese language into parts of their commencement speech before translating the words into English for the general audience.

Hue Vo told the Associated Press that her statement in Vietnamese was aimed at her parents, who do not speak fluent English. "Out of the whole speech, it's one sentence dedicated to them to give thanks," she said, pointing to the hardship her parents faced moving here from Vietnam. "It's very important to my parents that I keep my culture," she said. "I felt if I expressed myself in Vietnamese it would be more heartfelt."

By the end of the 20th century, the Vietnamese were by far the largest Asian group in Louisiana, and the nearly 25,000 Vietnamese made up an estimated 44% of all the Asians in the state. In fact, Louisiana had the ninth largest Vietnamese population in the United States, according to the National Alliance for Vietnamese American Service Agencies of Washington.

Despite the large population, relations remain dicey in the racially and ethnically-divided Louisiana.

"I don't like them addressing in a foreign language. They should be in English," school-board member Rickie Pitre was quoted saying during a recent committee meeting.

The pro-English sentiment is an ironic one in a parish whose name is French for "Good Earth." The area was settled by French-speaking Catholics deported from Nova Scotia in 1755. But as late as the 1950s, children who spoke French in school were routinely punished. Historians have argued that the long suppression of French in state schools caused a vital loss of cultural heritage in Southern Louisiana. Today, the cultural diverse heritage of Acadiana, including its French language, is often touted and celebrated.

In a press release this week, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans said that the policy will affect not only the Vietnamese American community in the Terrebonne Parish, but threatens all multilingual communities in this Gulf Coast region.

"This proposal is a grave act of injustice to all who embrace the diverse communities in which they are a part of," Minh Nguyen, Executive Director of VAYLA-NO, stated in the press release. "It is blatantly discriminatory and infringes on core American values of the freedom of speech. We should instead celebrate the fact that the success of these students are rooted in their culture and their ability to communicate in a second language."