by aengelson | April 22nd, 2010
So I’ve started Vietnamese lessons.
And I’ve learned the immensity of what I don’t know.
My teacher, who’s also Joanie’s Vietnamese tutor, is Ms. Thanh. And boy she’s tough. But very nice. And very good.
This is a difficult language to say the least. First, the good news. I don’t have to learn a new character set, like Chinese or Japanese. That’s about it for the good news.
The bad news is the tones and vowel sounds are incredibly subtle to the English-speaking ear. Not only do you have six distinct tones, but the vowels vary in tiny degrees, from deep in the throat to near the jaw. Of course, to my ear, they all sound the same. Ms. Thanh is very patient with me, but distinguishing between the tones and vowels is slow going for me.
This is new to me. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. It doesn’t usually take me too long to pick up on something. But this is different. It’s deep inside the brain and the tongue and I struggle and bumble my way through. The nice thing about working with Ms. Thanh is that she doesn’t let you fake your way through.
For example. I phrase I use constantly, and which I was pretty proud to have learned early on is Hen gap lai: “see you later.” Of course it turns out I’ve been pronouncing it almost completely wrong. Although you can usually fake it well enough people get the gist–also it’s a parting shot, so if they don’t know what the hell you’re saying, well, no matter the conversation’s over before it began.
Of particular concern is the e in “hen.” It’s the low tone. I think I tried to say it forty different times and each time I was wrong. I can’t hear the difference. Again, Ms. Thanh was very patient. I think I was starting to look like Glenn Beck as my eyebrows lift and my mouth gets exaggerated trying to get just the right tone. It’s not a pretty sight, and the kids hanging out on the sidewalk at the cafe were quite amused I think.
Meanwhile, my daughter Fiona (“genius girl”) is quickly becoming fluent, or at least she gets the tones right and doesn’t hesitate to correct me at any opportunity.
Well, I’ve got two and a half years, I guess.
Speaking of the Vietnamese language, I found that one of my recent blog posts (the one on teaching Dickinson in Hanoi) (actually, the one on discovering Vietnamese poets in Hanoi’s street names) was translated into Vietnamese and posted on a local web site, Hanoi Grapevine. I’m pretty sure nothing I’ve ever written has been translated into Vietnamese, so that’s pretty neat.
Maybe I’ll be able to read it in three years.
I’m not holding my breath.