Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Learning Vietnamese: Past The Basics

I'm eating breakfast in a café, when a tall, middle-aged blonde woman walks in. She sits down at a table with a small group of diners, and starts conversing effortlessly in Vietnamese.

I put down my book and stare into space, listening to the sound of good Vietnamese coming out of a Western mouth: the easy glide of the tones, the command of the vowels, the articulation of consonants that were learned in adulthood.

And I think: this is what I aspire to...

Two weeks ago, my Vietnamese language class finished the 300-some-odd page course book we'd been using for the past six months. My class began book "B," moving me, I suppose, past the elementary and into the pre-intermediate level.

Indeed, after seven months of studying six hours a week, coupled with daily practice, I am now fairly functional in Vietnamese. I can eat, shop, bargain, travel, and engage in basic conversation about the day. Grammatically, I can express past, present, and future, use relative clauses and conditional (if-then) structures, offer advice, express my hopes, and my vocabulary is expanding daily.

I have worked hard to get to where I am, and so last week, to celebrate...I got depressed.

Friday, I just couldn't bring myself to study Vietnamese. It was cold, I felt tired, and in no mood to fight with phonemes. Like an incontinent adult, I couldn't bear the humiliation of being less than fully-capable, so I begged off my afternoon lesson, vowed to return Monday, and put away my books for the weekend.

Then Monday came, and a profound sense of seasonal ennui interfered, so I stayed out of class again. The result was that I spent nearly a week avoiding Vietnamese.

And then without warning, I woke up this morning with a mad desire to speak Vietnamese! Like a powerful urge for a midnight snack, my lips and tongue wanted these sounds, these flavors, these nuances of thought that have, as surreptitiously as a thief, begun finding their way into me.

What had been despair and frustration overnight turned into renewed enthusiasm for learning. And I can't really tell you why.

Learning a new language is an emotional experience; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Once the initial thrill of communicating wears off, you become hungry for intelligent discourse. Finding yourself unable to relate to others at the level to which you're accustomed is humbling; you wince at your own banality, the superficiality of your observations. "Bad people are...uh...bad." Groan.

It's not for nothing that psychologists have come up with the term "language ego." Our self-concept and self-esteem are intertwined with our linguistic abilities. Learning a new language is ego-annihilating...and this, for an otherwise capable adult, can be torturous.

But the stages of language learning are also fairly predictable, and the ambivalent feelings I've been experiencing are classic signs of a pre-intermediate plateau. For the pre-intermediate student, frustration stems from the feeling that, no matter how hard one has worked, the road ahead is still longer than the road behind.

Thankfully, my training as a language teacher helps me understand what to do. It is important for students at this stage to review basic vocabulary and grammatical structures, even as they learn new ones. Exposure to authentic input – reading and listening – is critical.

Listening may be the most important skill of all. Think of how long a baby learns mutely before making its first utterances. Given enough input, language production becomes inevitable; it's wired into our DNA. And so, pre-intermediate students need to listen, listen, listen...

And guard against frustration. Mostly, for the adult language learner, it is important to have faith, and to persist in one's efforts, regardless of how banal and unintelligent one sometimes feels. To do this, one needs role models, and the Western woman I saw in the café reminds me that fluency is attainable, and that acculturation and friendship are worthwhile rewards.

And so today, I return to my language studies, which at times feel like drudgery, and at times fill me with the joy of discovery.

Có công mài sắt thì có ngày nên kim.

("Who works at sharpening iron, should one day have fine metal" - the rough meaning is: effort brings success).


  1. Hal. I really enjoyed this post. I felt like you were writing my own feelings about learning to speak Vietnamese fluently. Great post again!

  2. Wow. Another wonderful post. I love the way you described the moment when you reawakened, hungry for the language. Thank you.

  3. Hello!
    I would love all the help I can get. I have found a few websites but nothing that is really helpful. If you know of some good ones send them my way!
    When you first started learning, where did you begin?, did you start learning before you went to Vietnam?
    I was planning a trip to Vietnam last summer, unfortunately the plans fell through. It is still always in the back of my mind though.
    Well keep blogging, it's nice to read about someone having some similar struggles! haha

  4. What a great post. I hit the wall mid-year, struggled for a few months then gave up. Maybe I'll resume lessons this year. From your post I see I didn't get to review what I'd learnt. And I was definitely sick of feeling like a retard when trying to speak to people. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and congratulations on finding your enthusiasm.