I Don’t Know Jack

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.

One of my recent blog posts was translated into Vietnamese for a local web site.

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.

5 Responses to “I Don’t Know Jack”

  1. Language is a funny one. There’s no doubt some people have an aptitude for it. I arrived with a fellow volunteer, first time around, who grasped it in around three months to a good standard. That said he was an English language teacher and could already speak three other languages. It helps I guess.

    I have a friend who refers to my Vietnamese as pretty good – which would be complimentary (seeing as he’s been here nine years) if it wasn’t for the fact that I have never heard him utter a single word of Vietnamese.

    Really my Vietnamese is limited to the see you laters, no problems and oh my gods.

    I think most of the people I use my Vietnamese on already know English so they’re pretty forgiving of my flat tones.

    Since returning I haven’t stared learning again but I must. I don’t see it as something I’ll master – just as a process of slow, but hopefully continuous improvement.

    And yes, it is hard but having tried and failed to learn Spanish (in an environment where some people learned it in subversion surroundings in a week) – at least there’s none of that conjugating verbs stuff.

    I still recall the moment I gave up on Spanish – the teacher held up the books of verbs and I quickly realised there wasn’t enough space in my head.

    But I must start those Vietnamese lessons again.

  2. Christopher Cote says:

    Hey Andy, my advice is to do as much work as you with people on the language. Books of course are helpful, but trying to talk with people is the most helpful, even if you get laughed at. Just get out of your comfort zone. When you get a few things down, try to have conversations with kids, they are always interested and will be good critics. Plus you have your daughter to help you. Keep with it and try to repeat what your teacher says, rather than write. Don’t give up! Just stay away from studying in too many books, you’re trying to learn to SPEAK Vietnamese. Good luck.

  3. aengelson says:

    Hey guys, great advice. Yeah, I took Spanish in high school which barely counts, and a year of French in college. Plus I self-taught myself a few words in Mandarin before traveling in China. So I pretty much know how to order a drink in most of the known world, but that’s about it.
    The comfort zone thing is interesting because it’s precisely when what I say feels almost weird and embarassing is when I’ve got it right. I think, god I sound ridiculous, but it’s leaving behind the reserved mindset. It’s kind of like singing. I always thought I was a terrible singer, and mind you, I’m not great at all, but I get much better when I have a couple beers and just say f*** it I’m going to try.
    Chris, good luck on Moldavian (which is Romanian, right?)

  4. Hey Andy-

    I feel your pain. Here’s a post I wrote a couple of months into my life in Nghi Tam. It took me 5 years, but when I left I could confidently chat for 5 minutes with the tea ladies. A year for a minute and I considered it a success. :-)

    http://www.farmeast.com/hanoi-blog/blog/log5.htm

    -DHF

    ps: I’ve enjoyed Erik’s posts about his visits.

  5. Hi Andy , remember me ? If you want someone to speak Vietnamese with . I have some volunteer can help you .

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
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