I’ve lived in Vietnam for exactly 11 months now, and for 8 of those months I’ve taken Vietnamese lessons. I have two tutors that teach me Vietnamese during my lunch hour every day. This is a good example of the power of “opt out” psychology. If I didn’t have a Vietnamese lesson lined up every day, it would be difficult to motivate myself to study, what with all the other things I’m busy with, plus simply being exhausted after a full day of work. But by having my lessons arranged, I have to actually call and cancel every day, which I rarely do.
Presently, I’d call myself conversational. I can usually get what I want wherever I go, I can participate and follow basic conversations, and I can express complex ideas, though usually in some weird “walkaround” way. Since I study every day, I’ve made a ton of progress, and at this point probably speak the equivalent of what someone would after studying for 2 years in university. Maybe that’s just me stroking my own ego, I never can tell.
Anyways, Vietnamese is a really tough language. Its got five tones (flat, rising, falling, wavy, and question mark-y… don’t ask). Check out Tila Tequila speaking Vietnamese if you want to hear an example and be entertained(? not sure that’s the right word):
Like I was saying, its a tough language. The tones are really difficult to hear, and if you don’t say them *exactly* the way you’re supposed to then noone will understand you. Seriously. See #3 in this post for an example: http://www.carpeminutam.com/2009/03/25-random-things-jess-in-vietnam.html
Coming to Vietnam, I knew I wanted to learn the language. Vietnamese is only spoken in Vietnam, Vietnamese restaurants the world over, and quite a few nail salons in the U.S., just living in the country is justification enough to study it. Most people here don’t speak English, or if they do its likely that the English they do speak is tortured and limited, so learning Vietnamese can make your life here significantly easier.
A quick and obvious example: there are 17 pronouns in Vietnamese, and the correct one to use is determined by your gender and relative age. Embedded in these pronouns is a core component of Confucianism, relationships. Your relationship to others determines your duties to others (e.g. student to teacher, father to son, brother to brother), and in Vietnamese you can’t say something without first establishing what that relationship is by using the correct pronoun. In my experience, typically you are either “em”, “anh”, or “chi”. “Em” is for someone younger than you, but is also used when speaking to waiters or people serving you somehow, even if they’re older. “Em oi!” (literally hey you [younger]!) can be heard at every restaurant, as people are continuously shouting at their waiters from across rooms to get their attention. “Anh” is simply an older male, and “chi” an older female.
The last benefit I’ll mention is the pure intellectual pursuit of learning another language. I hated studying languages in high school, and Spanish was my Achilles heel grade-wise: I may have gotten one non-B in Spanish through all of high school. I enjoyed learning Latin in a different way (and in fact my affection for Latin is reflected in the name of this blog), but generally speaking I found language study tedious, useless, and boring. Simply being able to apply what I was learning has made studying the language tedious, practical, and interesting. Two out of three ain’t bad.
I’ve tried a few different ways to make learning Vietnamese more interesting. One is that I type all the words I learn into a Google Doc, and then download them to my iPod Touch. I’ve got a program on there that makes flashcards out of the words, tracks which ones you get right and wrong, and then reshuffles the wrong ones over and over until you get them right. If you’ve got an iPhone or iPod Touch, download GFlash Pro, and you can make your own flashcards out of anything. Its a great way to study whatever while you’re on the go. Wish I’d had that growing up.
I also recently started a group, titled “Tieng Viet WhaWhat.” Apparently the name has caused a lot of confusion, which personally I find hilarious. As a good friend pointed out, there’s probably only a certain 5-year age span that gets that, and most of those people aren’t in Vietnam. Anyways, the idea is simple: host a bi-monthly dinner and everyone that shows up is only allowed to speak Vietnamese. You get to meet new people, hoc tieng viet (study Vietnamese), and hang out and drink beer at the same time. Its been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to more of them.
Alright, I think thats enough for now on learning Vietnamese. Câm ơn và tạm biệt! .