I arrived in Vietnam on May 10, and a week later began taking regular language classes at Trường Đại Học Bách Khoa, a branch of Hanoi National University. For seven weeks now, I've been struggling to understand and utter the difficult, surprising, and devilish phonemes that make up the Vietnamese language. Nothing in my 46 years of speaking languages has prepared me to make these sounds. It's been like watching an alien attempt to squeeze itself out of my mouth; as surprising when successful as when it fails.
The language itself has a deep and interesting history. Vietnamese is a Austroasiatic language spoken by around 90 million people worldwide. Ethnolinguists consider the language autochthonic, meaning it is an indigenous language that has not been reduced to minority status. While centuries of Chinese rule led to the adoption of numerous words from that country (much as the Norman Conquest brought a number of French words into the English language), the Vietnamese language remains, at its core, a variant of whatever was spoken by the first people to populate this part of the world. When you consider that its linguistic ancestor was originally spoken by inhabitants of the Red River region, where Hanoi is located, there is no doubt that I am learning a language that has deep roots in the native soil.
Grammatically, the language is easy. Sentences have a simple subject-verb-object construction (like English), with no verb inflections - that is, words do not change to indicate tense (the way the English "go" becomes "went" to indicate the past), or number (adding "s" to make plurals), or gender (like Spanish). Because of its similar sentence construction to English, it's easy to make intelligible sentences. String together a subject ("I"), a verb ("like"), and an object ("Vietnam"), and you have a sentence: Tôi thích Việt Nam. There's a bit more to the picture than that, but trust me: the grammar is the least difficult part to learn.
The devil is in the pronunciation. Aside from being tonal - that is, the word "ma" has at least six different meanings depending on how you say it - Vietnamese has several sounds that are not found in the English phonological system. Moreover, the Vietnamese ear is attuned to the subtlest distinctions - words can have the same basic consonant, vowel, tonal structure, but by holding the vowel slightly longer, you create an entirely different word, e.g. tắm ("shower"), and tám (the number "eight"). So the pressure is on, not only to pronounce sounds that don't exist in the English language, but to pronounce them with an accuracy that English (which actually tolerates a lot of diversity) usually does not require.
As if this were not enough, the same word - same spelling and tone - can mean different things depending on context. An American friend of mine who speaks Vietnamese well described the language as being like a thousand-piece puzzle, in which every piece is a piece of the sky. You have nothing to indicate where that piece belongs, other than how it fits its immediate neighbors. This emphasis on context reinforces what I wrote earlier about high-context vs. low-context cultures. The legalistic precision of a low-context vocabulary is missing here; speaker and listener need to be attuned on many levels to communicate meaning. Vietnamese is a high-context language for a high-context people.
Lest I give the impression that the language is impenetrable, however, let me emphasize that after seven weeks, I can already get most of my basic needs met (eating, shopping, bargaining) and have been able to hold some basic conversations. A large part of this is due to the helpfulness of the people. I've found most Hanoians to be pleased that I am attempting their language, and more than willing to help me out. They are also strict teachers, and more than once a conversation at a cafe has resulted in me having my pronunciation drilled into me by a Marine sargeant of an instructor! But in truth, these experiences are welcome. Aside from providing me with needed instruction, these sessions require me to play the role of the grateful guest - an important role that allows people to display their natural generosity.
At core, humans share more similarities than differences, but the differences are significant enough to warrant attention. While we all suffer and love and struggle to meet the same basic needs, language acts as a polarizing lens, coloring how we view things. Learning to see the world through a different lens helps us to check our ethnocentric assumptions, and reminds us that much of what we consider to be natural psychology, is just internalized culture. From the standpoint of a foreign expatriate, language also provides signposts for navigating a new culture, for learning what is necessary, what is funny, and what is to avoid.
Despite its difficulties and frustrations, I've been enjoying learning Vietnamese precisely because it is so different. I moved to Vietnam because I wanted to live in a place that would challenge my assumptions. I can think of nothing better for tearing down old assumptions than to start giving new names to things. The world begins anew, for, as it is written: in the beginning, was the word.