Speaking the language helps break down several barriers
|Studious: A Vietnamese teacher (right) guides her foreign students at a Vietnamese lesson. The language's different tones are the most difficult part of learning it. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
by David Burt
As a former languages student, to my shame, I did not even know how to say hello in the language of my adopted country when I first arrived in Viet Nam to work for the NGO Hue Help.
Once I began working, my linguistic deficiency began to take its toll on my social life and I decided that, come what may, I would learn. I found a teacher, began lessons and have tried ever since with varying degrees of success to put those lessons into practice.
Over a year later and from the early days of getting incredulous looks and laughs from my mangled phrasebook pronunciation, to the tortuous task of tackling unfamiliar phonemes and memorizing a plethora of pronouns, I have progressed to a conversational level. I have since spoken Vietnamese from Phu Quoc to Sa Pa as well as with members of the diaspora in Europe and America, each time savouring the looks of shock, delight and bemusement (especially to my Hue accent).
For this reason I want to urge anyone considering taking, or re-starting lessons, to go ahead. You'll be amazed by how many doors speaking Vietnamese can open.
Learning a language completely unrelated to your own might seem a daunting task. Some similar words may have found themselves ingrained in English through related Chinese vocabulary, such as ‘char' (tea) and ‘kumquat' (tra and quat in Vietnamese) but these are of little consequence to the beginner. Nonetheless, despite the lack of crossover between Vietnamese and English, I believe that there are many aspects of the language that make it easy to learn.
Luckily for learners, in the 17th century. the missionary Alexandre de Rhodes developed a phonetic, 29 lettered Vietnamese alphabet using the Latin script. This new simple writing system or Quoc Ngu (national language) eventually replaced the traditional Chinese characters and was popularly adopted in the early 20th century, making Viet Nam one of the few Southeast Asian countries to do so. This means that you can already read in Vietnamese!
From a grammatical point of view, Vietnamese is fairly simple. Like English, Vietnamese follows a subject–verb–object sentence structure, meaning that you can start with a subject: "I" (Toi), follow with a verb, "eat" (an), and finish with an object: "vegetables" (rau).
Then, there are no gendered nouns (like in French or Spanish), no plural rules (think mouse and mice), no irregular verbs (go > went) and no need for verb conjugations or inflections (e.g. I eat but he eats). It doesn't matter if it's I/you/he/she/we or they, the verb will never change form.
Nor are there different verbal tenses when speaking about the past, present or future; so you can wave goodbye to the likes of ‘ate / had eaten / was eating etc.' (This does mean that context is everything, so you'll have to listen closely for indicators to be able to tell when an action occurs; this is normally clear with the addition of certain words before the verb itself, like ‘yesterday' and ‘next week').
If Vietnamese is such a simple language then, why do people struggle to learn it? The answer is simple: most learners have trouble with its tones.
There are six tones (ngang, huyen, sac, nang, hoi and nga) in the Vietnamese language, each one an indispensable part of the syllable structure, so words that look the same written down can have different meanings depending on the rise, fall and dip of the voice.
To use a classic example, the word ma can mean ghost (ma), which or but (ma), tomb (ma), horse (ma), rice seedling (ma) and mother (ma), depending on the tone.
Many beginners are put off from studying Vietnamese by these pronunciation difficulties. The challenge is not just pronouncing the tones, but having people distinguish them. Repeated failure in being understood can be discouraging, but bear in mind that in the same way a musician may hear barely noticeable sharps and flats, Vietnamese people are attuned to subtle distinctions in pronunciations that the beginner may not be able to produce. Vietnamese also has several sounds that are not present in the English phonological system. The novice Vietnamese speaker will therefore have to produce sounds that may not exist in English and pronounce them with an unfamiliar accuracy. An incorrect tone can completely change the meaning of a word and sometimes make for an awkward encounter, something I discovered the hard way after asking someone why they were stupid (ngu) instead of why they were sleeping (ngu).
One way you can attempt to bypass pronouncing the word perfectly is to orchestrate. Move your finger in the direction of the tone (whether it's rising, falling, questioning or dipping). By exaggerating the pronunciation and indicating the tone with your hand, people will generally have a better chance of understanding you and will almost certainly be more entertained by your conversation.
For many foreigners in Viet Nam, the need to learn Vietnamese is simply not there. If you are teaching English or working in an English-speaking environment and have an international social circle, you can get by without speaking much at all. Many people do stop trying to learn after mastering the basics of ordering food and drink.
However, those who stop are in effect cutting themselves off from the beauty and poetry of a language deeply rooted in its native land, which without polysyllabic words can be breathtakingly beautiful in its concepts and subtlety. As language is an intrinsic part of any culture and profoundly influences the way people see the world, Tieng Viet (Vietnamese language) can be the map that helps you figure out how people think here.
If you are living here, odds are you have come across the term ‘di nhau'. It is one of my favourite expressions. It encompasses the whole spectrum of an evening with friends and whose literal translation would be along the lines of: " go and meet with friends, crack jokes, enjoy beer (with many toasts), and eat small plates of food and chat."
Learning any language will always be a marathon, not a sprint. With Vietnamese I think it's safe to say that you can add some tonal hurdles - but once you get over them, you'll be closer to having a more fulfilled and enriched experience in this wonderful country.
Wherever you are, make it part of your day to practice, learn a new phrase a day, talk with your neighbours and friends, don't be afraid to haggle, ask people how they are, listen to Vietnamese music, send messages in Vietnamese and read supermarket signs.
Stay motivated, don't be discouraged, persevere. The benefits will outweigh the hard work. After all, how difficult can it be to learn a language in which the word for clothes is ‘trousers shirts'? — VNS