Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Learning Vietnamese

I arrived in Vietnam on May 10, and a week later began taking regular language classes at Trường Đại Hc 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 Vit 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. 

19 comments:

  1. I lived in Hanoi for two and a half years and never got passed the functional - although I was spoilt by colleagues who all spoke such great English.

    I'm headed back in September this year and I'm keen to restart Vietnamese lessons. I have absolutely no gift for languages what so ever so have decided that I'm going to go for one on one tutorial and just treat it as a long term battle. I don't care if I learn very slowly - just so long as there is some consistant improvement.

    Good luck with your efforts.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Steve. I'm also looking at learning Vietnamese as a long-term endeavor. My way of looking at the whole "gift for languages thing" is, there's no way I CAN'T learn a few words here and there. So I just choose to accelerate the process by taking a few classes. It's also just a hell of a lot of fun!

    I wish you the best in your endeavors, and please give me a shout when you get back to Hanoi!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Are you learning a Hanoi accent? Is there one? Compared to other parts of the country?
    If Thai and Lao and Vietnamese are tonal, is Khmei the only language in the region non-tonal?
    (boom boom)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hal, I just enjoyed the beejezus out of reading all your older Hanoi posts. We are headed to Vietnam in December so I have been trolling around mostly looking for food recommendations, but I have a feeling that your traffic advice will be invaluable. Also, 9000 points for adding the verb 'to flense' to my vocabulary. Will be reading along for the ride henceforth.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, Heather! And you're welcome for "flense" - I agree, it's an awesome verb! I'm happy to have 9000 points; you never know when those might come in handy...

    BTW, please let me know if you stop in Hanoi; I'd love to show you and your "we" some sites off the beaten path. And if you have anything you'd like me to research for you from here, let me know; especially if you think it would make a good subject for a blog posting.

    All the best,

    Hal

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love this quote: "It's been like watching an alien attempt to squeeze itself out of my mouth..." LOL!

    This is *exactly* how I felt the first 200 times I tried saying "thứ tư," Vietnamese for "Wednesday" or, literally, "the forth [day]." The sound of "ư" was one of the toughest for me. To make it, you have to use throat muscles you didn't even know you had.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hal, Great post!! I liked the reference from the Book of John chapter one at the end of your post too.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hal, we will definitely be in Hanoi and would absolutely be squeaky and hoppy excited to take you up on your offer of paths less beaten. Give me a holler: heater girlie @ yahoo . com.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Hal, I have just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely. Finally, someone who uses proper grammer AND is interesting! :) I will be arriving in Hanoi November 30 and plan to enroll in Vietnamese lessons. Have you been satisfied with the program you did? Any other recommendations? Kelsey

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for the kind words, Kelsey.

    I have been VERY happy with my classes at Bách Khoa. The proof is also in the pudding; of the foreigners I know here who speak Vietnamese, the best ones, I believe learned at my school.

    Please drop me a line when you arrive, and I'll be happy to do what I can to help you orient to the place, give you practical advice, and just generally be a friendly face when you arrive.

    All the best,

    Hal

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks, Hal, for your offer. I will certainly email you upon my arrival. In the meantime, do you have an email address for someone at your language school so I can inquire about classes, scheduling, prices, etc.? Many thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Kelsey -

    Phone: 84 4 38694323
    E-mail: ktv_vnh@yahoo.com

    I can tell you that group classes generally run around US$3.50 an hour, with private classes around $7. Scheduling is hit-or-miss; basically, if you can find one or two other people to study with, they can prob hook you up with a teacher. Six months in I'm still impressed with the quality of instruction and materials. Hope to see you at school!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks, Hal. Talk to you again in a week and a half or so... from Vietnam! :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hello! Wow I am so glad to have found your blog, I am currently in the process of trying to learn Vietnamese myself; It's a beautiful language. Unfortunately, like you said, a white person was never meant to pronounce some of these things haha. Here is my blog:
    http://hieutiengviet.blogspot.com/
    I love reading yours so keep it up!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hey, great blog, very informative.

    Just arrived in Hanoi and headed over to check out the Vietnamese lessons at Bach Khoa uni (I like near by) but couldn't find the right building. There seems to be no info online.

    Any help you could give would be great.

    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi James,

    If you scroll up in this post, you'll find the phone # and e-mail address I left Kelsey. If you still need help finding the right building, please call me on my cell phone, and I'll take you over there.

    Mobile: 0125-400-6353

    Welcome to Hanoi! It's a great city, and it gets so much better when you can speak with people. I'll be happy to give you any help I can.

    Hal

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hello, Hal. Thank you for your interesting blog!
    I used to live in Vietnam some years ago and I loved it; I am always planning to return. Do you know any good teachers that offer skype vietnamese language tuition?

    Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hey, I do know a woman named Hien Rutherford (married to an American). She just had a kid, so I don't know how that's affected her work. If you contact me at my normal e-mail - halito@halmedrano.com - I'll be happy to follow up. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  19. This can be a finest article for this subject matter I've ever read. I'm really quite satisfied with it. Maintain running a blog!

    click here

    ReplyDelete