Learning a new language - Vietnamese - Diane Lee

On learning a new language

This is the 14th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

After only a few days in Hanoi, it was painfully obvious that I needed to learn Vietnamese. I could say thank you, and hello (learned from when I was here in 2010) but it wasn’t nearly enough. Clearly.

Without Vietnamese, I couldn’t communicate with taxi drivers—my main form of transport. I couldn’t tell them where I was going  (I had to rely on Google maps), and I couldn’t tell them where to pick me up (Grab and Uber drivers usually call first to verify the pick-up address).

If I knew where I was going, I couldn’t direct them (left, right, keep going, stop here), let alone tell drivers where to drop me off if I changed my mind about my destination, for example, being dropped off at the shopping centre a kilometre away from my apartment because I had to get milk or eggs or bananas. Or stopping at an ATM because I was out of cash.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard.

I didn’t know what to order in a restaurant or from a street food vendor, crucial because I am vegetarianish—I don’t eat things that have fur or hair. I didn’t want to accidentally eat beef or pork. Or worse: dog or cat, which are eaten regularly in Vietnam.

Sure, enough people spoke English—certainly it was more prolific than when I was here in 2010 especially among the young—but not being able to speak Vietnamese, well, I felt disabled. Alien. Disempowered.

So I tentatively dipped my toe into a Vietnamese language class. It was taught by a young Vietnamese woman whose English was excellent. Unfortunately her ability to teach was not.

She sped through the alphabet, pronunciation, pronouns, directions and time in record speed.

I lasted three lessons before quitting. I felt stupid and inadequate and slow. What was wrong with me that I didn’t get it? Surely Vietnamese wasn’t that hard?

Turns out it is. Vietnamese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, especially for a native English speaker.

(Others have argued that it’s easier than we think. The jury is out on that one.)

I found another teacher, and I did ten—count ’em, ten!—lessons on Vietnamese pronunciation. It was only then that we moved onto vocabulary and sentence building. Because if you can’t or don’t pronounce Vietnamese properly, NO ONE will understand what you are saying. Cue blank looks. And I’ve had a lot of them.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard. Trying to wrap my tongue around the ng sound (fine at the end of a word, but not so much at the beginning), the ư sound (the only way I could make that sound was to pretend I was angry—it was henceforth known as the angry vowel), the o (as in horrible, but more towards the back of the throat) and the kh sound (another back of the throat sound) was impossible, not to mention vowel sounds (i, y, a, ă , â, e, ê, u, ư, ô, ơ and o) PLUS double vowels PLUS the six tones on top of that. And don’t even get me started on the bubble! Gah!

I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of those ten weeks. But I did.

By the end of those ten weeks, I could read Vietnamese and pronounce it properly. I didn’t understand any of it, but I could read it. Which meant I could read and pronounce addresses and menu items. Freedom!

In the meantime, I was picking up all sorts of useful phrases thanks to Google Translate and my Vietnamese KOTO colleagues: no meat, vegetarian, turn right, turn left, stop here, good-bye, you’re handsome, you’re pretty, you’re beautiful, you are so kind, bill please, confused, traffic jam, short-cut, speak slowly, happy lunar new year, I’m sorry, good, not good, no, wait a minute, delicious, no problem, you’re welcome, iced coffee with condensed milk, toilet, hot, too expensive, a little, numbers 1-10, very, fish, chicken, tofu, rain, and a few pronouns.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English.

I’ve now moved onto communication and I’ve just completed lesson 4: my Vietnamese friends (or in fact any Vietnamese I bump into when I’m out and who I get talking to in my limited Vietnamese) say that my Vietnamese is very good. I have inspired a few of my expat friends to sign up for lessons. My Vietnamese is certainly much better than it was six months ago, and I’m very proud of my progress. And my lessons include non text-book Vietnamese, which is super handy.

I’ll give you an example. Last weekend I had to go to Bangkok for a visa run. I was standing in the immigration queue in Noi Bai Airport. A young Vietnamese dude was standing in front of me. His mate decided to join him and jumped the queue and stood in front of me, next to his friend. I tapped him on the shoulder, looked at him, raised an eyebrow and said: Thật à? which translates to: Really? Are you serious? He looked at me, surprised, and moved back behind me.

And another: yesterday I caught a Grab motorcycle taxi into KOTO Restaurant from my apartment for a meeting. This dude was driving much too quickly to be safe. Em, I said, Đi chậm! That translates to: Young man, go slower! He slowed right down. Mission accomplished.

Now that’s empowerment!

Readers should note that I have never learned a language formally. I always pick up smatterings while I travel—a few words here, a few phrases there—and I attempted to learn Spanish via Duolingo, with some success. I have no idea whether I have an aptitude for foreign languages or not, because I have no benchmark against which to measure aforementioned aptitude: no high school French, Italian or Latin—that was what was on offer when I was in school. I do know that my brain tends to latch onto words and phrases that are non-text book. I have no idea why. Learning the days of the week, time of day, numbers, pronouns, prepositions, sentence structure is hard for me, but I can joke in Vietnamese, and talk in idioms and phrases, for example, shoot the breeze, kiss and make up, bullshit, piss off, how are you, and pardon me. I can even call myself a cougar, which results in raucous laughter, because it means a younger man has to be present for the joke to work.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English. I get it wrong—all the time!—but people are kind and patient, and correct me gently. And I keep getting it wrong and repeating it until I get it right.

Given then I am in Vietnam indefinitely, I plan to keep on learning Vietnamese. Because how else do you understand a culture—and I mean really understand—other than through its language?

Photo credit: 漂泊的荷兰人 via VisualHunt / CC BY

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