Education of a Polyglot
Currently, I am living in Saigon, Vietnam, studying Vietnamese 60 hours per week, with the goal of becoming a qualified translator for Vietnamese language. My commitment to Vietnamese comes after years of frustrated language studies in other Asian countries. This article, in three parts, will discuss the history of my language studies in Europe and Asia, my current Vietnamese study strategy, and finally, it will include a review of many of the learning materials available for Vietnamese study.
My family is Sicilian, but I was born in the USA. My mother died when I was young and I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was a polyglot.
She had two masters degrees and spoke Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, and Yiddish. I grew up exposed to all of these languages. The adults spoke Italian to each other, but normally spoke English to the children. My grandmother encouraged me to speak English, Italian and Spanish and for a long time, I stayed with a Spanish speaking babysitter when my grandmother was at work. My grandmother’s house was always full of Spanish speaking people and I had a lot of Puerto Rican play mates. My grandmother read me comic books and nursery stories in Spanish, Italian and French.
At school I studied two years of Spanish and two years of French. At university, I studied three years of French, a full four years of Spanish and German, as well as two semesters of Russian. I graduated with a BA in German with a minor in English. After graduation, I did additional studies, including writing two under-graduate thesis, one in German and one in Spanish.
When I had completed my first two semesters of the German program at Middle Tennessee State University I went to the University of Mainz, Germersheim, Germany, as an exchange student, to study translation of German, Spanish and English. I wound up spending four years at Germersheim, attending classes, working as a translator and teacher, and doing professional translation research under Dr. Kiraly, who was exploring various methodologies of second language acquisition with the goal of creating artificial intelligence computer programs for translation.
A lot of the research we worked on dealt with first language acquisition by children, which we then applied to the learning of second language by adults. During this time I explored a number of Silent Way or Natural Way of language acquisition. Of course I read Krashen, but I also stumbled on Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s Automatic Language Growth theory, which would play a huge role in my life, many years later.
In retrospect, the mistake that I made in Germersheim was that I broke off my formal studies too early, thinking that my work as a translator and as an academic researcher were adding to my knowledge sufficiently. In some ways, they were, and I was learning things that my former classmates might never learn. But, on the other hand, I wasn’t getting the boring classroom fundamentals. I really should have completed more formal language education because sometimes my professional translations were spot-on and sometimes they weren’t. The proof that I needed more academic training was when I failed the certification examination for the American Translators association. I was the head translator for Warner Bros. Germany at the time and also did freelance work for a number of large clients, including German government agencies. But what I realize now, and what I apply to my study of Vietnamese is: No matter what level you are functioning at, even if you are so highly functioning that you can translate or interpret at international conferences, you MUST complete ALL of your academic training, including grammar and writing exercises.
At Germersheim I had private tutorials in Russian and Italian. I left the university for one semester to study at German translation school in Salamanca, Spain. When I left Germersheim permanently, it was to attend business school at Universidad Latina, San Jose, Costa Rica. I attended classes in economics, finance, and accounting, taught in Spanish. I also attended my first ever Italian classes at the Centro Dante Aligheri, San José.
In total, I spent a bit less than a year in Costa Rica, after which, I went to New York to work in the financial industry. I was given a large number of Italian and Spanish speaking clients and often spent entire days without speaking any English. I gave financial planning seminars in Spanish, Italian and occasionally German. Afterwards, I would field questions from investors in those languages. It was during this time that my Italian improved greatly, as it was the first time since I was small child that Italian was part of my everyday life.
After four years in New York, I came to Asia.
Since coming to Asia, more than ten years ago, one of my primary goals has been to learn an Asia language to 100% fluency, both academic and functional, reading, writing, speaking and listening at the level of a native speaker, college graduate, and to go back to work as a translator, researcher, and academic.
Sadly, I still haven’t achieved this goal. Along the way, I have attended classes in Mandarin, Thai, Korean, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Bahsa Malaysia.
Of those, I have learned Mandarin to an academic level of intermediate, (in all four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening) but with a communication level which is advanced.
To learn Mandarin, I attended six months of private lessons, 15-20 hours per week, at Taipei Language Institute, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Because I wanted to learn as much vocabulary, grammar and usage as quickly as possible, I didn’t learn any Chinese characters or pinyin. My teacher and I practiced only listening and speaking. I read texts written in Taiwanese phonetic script (Bopomofo). And I didn’t do any writing at all.
The advantage to not learning the writing straight away was that I could learn faster. The downside was that without writing, there was no way to practice at home or to do homework. Most foreigners believe that living in the country where the language is spoken you will be immersed, or that you could just go to the park and practice conversation with strangers. But it takes months for you to be able to speak beyond a silly inane level that would bore a native speaker to distraction.
I don’t see the benefit of asking fifty strangers in the park: What’s your name? What country are you from? and What’s your job?
Until you have a level conducive of real conversation, it is not very helpful to engage in conversations with strangers in lieu of spending more time reviewing your lessons.
After six months of classes I went to Mainland China and lived in the Shaolin Temple for three months. It was the first and almost the only time I was fully immersed in a language in Asia. As a foreigner, it is very hard to create a situation where everyone around you is speaking to you in the Asian language and where you don’t have access to TV, internet or foreign friends. Those three months were crucial in the development of my communicative abilities in Chinese, but I knew that there were still major deficiencies in my language.
I moved to Cambodia where I studied Khmer at the Khmer School for Expats, in Phnom Penh. I had fifteen hours of private classes each week for about three months. I concentrated primarily on speaking but also learned to read. While writing my book, “Re-Discovering the Khmers” I spent months in the field, interviewing people and write doing research. It was a good practical application of my Khmer knowledge.
I was looking for a language which I could take all the way, study to a higher degree than I had known German, and then pass the American Translator’s Association exam. With Khmer I doubted if it were even possible to reach such a level. In the whole world there are probably less than five Khmer textbooks, the best of which is a book produced by US State Department during the Vietnam War. Once you finish that book, there is nowhere to go. In talking to Khmers and visiting Khmer book shops and universities, I found a severe lack of printed material in Khmer language, even for native speakers.
Now, many years later, I have discovered a few more Khmer resources and there are even Khmer fonts for computers, as well as a growing Google Khmer. But even today, if you wanted to reach a high level of Khmer reading and writing, you would be fighting an uphill battle. I have since heard that there is some type of an MA program, perhaps in translation or in Khmer language, offered in the Royal University, in conjunction with a French university. I haven’t been able to find out if the medium of instruction is English or French.
In Cambodia, my French was often reactivated when I attended parties for expats or when I was out doing my work as a journalist. I often had to interview Khmer politicians, who spoke French, or French NGO workers who didn’t speak English. Additionally, I was asked on several occasions to interpret for visiting French dignitaries. French is not even a language that I claim to speak, but I was often the only one who could do it. So, I tried my best. My trick was that I would stand next to the Khmer interpreter. The French guy would speak, and I would understand 45%. Then the Khmer interpreter would speak, and I would understand 40%. Then I would spout an English translation which was 78% correct. (It’s the new math.)
Looking for a way to continue my Khmer studies, I went to the Alliance Francaise, thinking that by studying French, alongside Khmers, I could improve my French and my Khmer at the same time. When I walked into class the first time, the students all thought I was the teacher. The Khmer teacher came late and was very angry, thinking she had been replaced by a French guy. I explained to her, in French, why I was there, and she seemed very surprised, thinking I was too advanced for the class. After she saw my placement exam results, however, she asked me if I had ever had any French classes before. Although I could sort-of function, speaking French, my spelling and grammar were horrendous.
I also attended Korean classes briefly in Cambodia and found that to be an excellent exercise. My Korean was far beyond the introductory level of Korean offered in the course, but we were constantly being asked to translate into Khmer, which was a great mental workout for me.
All over Asia, and particularly in Cambodia, I often lived and worked with the local Chinese community, so my Chinese speaking and listening became a normal part of my life. After several years, I returned to Taiwan, hired a private tutor and embarked on a program, reading and writing traditional Chinese characters. I dutifully practiced reading and writing characters five hours per day for five months.
Once I began writing, I could spend as many hours as I wanted on learning the language. And, since I didn’t need a teacher while practicing, I could study at two in the morning if I chose to. Adding Chinese reading and writing to my study schedule expanded my possible study hours to twenty four hours per day, seven days a week.
I would read and write at any time that was convenient for me and then just meet with my teacher to go over what I had written.
After six months of reading and writing I had improved tremendously in all four skills. You can’t say things if you haven’t heard them. You can’t hear things if you don’t already know them. By learning to read, I was increasing my vocabulary, grammar, usage, and general knowledge. This in turn helped my listening, because I could hear more words, grammar and structures which my brain had previously ignored. Finally, the structures and elements of language I was reading and hearing were creeping into my active vocabulary, and I found myself saying them when I spoke.
While in Taiwan, I was looking for a masters program which would allow me to study Chinese intensely and then earn a degree in Chinese language and possibly continue on, earning an MA in translation. Unfortunately, in Taiwan, they didn’t offer a degree in Chinese language. They offered a number of MA programs, taught in English. Or, you could study the language for four years, pass an exam and get a certificate, but you couldn’t get a degree. Some students would go on and pursue a master’s degree in Chinese literature, but the program was very challenging for native speakers and nearly impossible for foreigners. There were four MA programs offered on the island, two in English-Chinese translation and two in German-English translation. They recommended you first attend four to six years of formal study before entering the program.
With no good options for a degree in Chinese fluency I looked elsewhere.
During one of my absences from Taiwan I went to Thailand to live in a monastery, studying Muay Thai and Buddhism with a monk named Prah Kru Ba.
For the second and last time in Asia, I was 100% immersed in an Asian language. But, because I had no prior knowledge of Thai language, my language acquisition was slow and spotty. By the end of three months I knew my numbers and could deal with everyday phrases and interactions Germaine to my life of study, training, and working in the monastery, but I couldn’t engage in real conversations. I was getting very lonely, with no one to talk to, and I knew that on an unlimited time line, I would never learn to speak Thai fluently without studying, So, I left.
Eventually, I made my way to Bangkok and studied Thai at AUA Rachedamri, where Thai is taught through the ALG, Automatic Language Growth method. In this method, students sit and listen to native speaker teachers interact with each other, for 800 hours. There are no exams, no homework, and no books. Students simply listen for 800 hours to get a perfect Thai accent, before they begin speaking. After speaking, students begin reading and writing. The whole program takes about 2,000 hours.
I listened for over 200 hours and found that my Thai improved tremendously. Because of my work, I had to leave Thailand frequently.
While I was in other countries, I attended language classes and conducted ALG experiments, writing reports which I sent back to David Long, the ALG program director. After each of my trips, we would sit and discuss what I had learned and seen and what my feelings were on ALG and the transportability of the program. A number of my ALG related videos appear on my YouTube channel.
During this time I had to interrupt my studies several times to go do research work in Lao and Shanland, Burma, where Thai is used as a lingua franca. It was good practice and practical experience using Thai in the field, but I knew that I needed more formal study or there were certain holes in my language skills that would never mend.
As for a masters degree, AUA can’t issue a degree, but there are MA programs in Thailand where you could study the language and culture and eventually earn a degree. The problem for me to study in Thailand is that it is difficult, if not impossible to earn a living in Thailand and support a degree study. Also, with a master’s in Thai, I wasn’t sure what my future work options would look like. So, I continued my search.
I took a teaching position in Korea with the hopes of learning Korean language and attending university, which offered an MA in North East Asian studies. To get into the program I had to pass a board exam in Chinese, which was easy for me. The professors said I was more fluent in spoken Chinese than even their best graduates. Next, they gave me seven months to prepare for the Korean board exam. I hired a tutor and bought three series of Korean books, which I worked parallel to each other.
It is because of Korea that I eventually landed in Vietnam. One of the subjects I was exploring in Korea was the Chinese origin of Korean vocabulary. Taking a language, breaking it down, and separating out the pre-mandarin vocabulary became an obsession of mine and I began looking at other languages which had as much Chinese influence as Korean.
I met with my tutor four days a week, for two hours per session. At night I tried to write Korean for about three hours per day. At the end of seven months my vocabulary was about 2000 words but I couldn’t function in Korean language society because I hadn’t had enough speaking and listening practice.
At the university, I passed my Korean board, oral and reading exam and was offered admission into the MA program. The problem was, the program would be mostly taught in English and I wouldn’t be able to continue with Korean language studies. The other problem was that I didn’t like Busan. If I were to remain in Korea for three more years I wanted to be in Seoul and I wanted to master the Korean language.
So, I left and looked elsewhere for an opportunity.
My work took me to the villages where the descendants of the Kingdom of Champa still spoke the Cham language. I was interested in learning Cham, but there is a severe dearth of materials and programs. Cham is part of the Malay language group, as is Filipino. While I was in the Philippines I studied a bit of Filipino, hoping this would help me prepare to learn the Cham language. At that time, I didn’t have money to pay a tutor. I was studying to be a paramedic and didn’t have time or energy to continue with Filipino language while preparing for my license exams.
Later, I went to Malaysia where I began studying Bahasa Malaysia with a tutor. It was a good introduction to the Malay language family. Many people agreed that the real place to learn Bahasa is Indonesia. In Malaysia, a large percentage of the population speaks English and much of the commonly spoken Malay incorporates English vocabulary. As a Malay friend said to me, “Go study in Indonesia. They have words for everything.”
I spent four months in Hanoi, Vietnam, studying Northern Vietnamese dialect with a private tutor, ten hours per week, for twelve weeks. While studying, I began dissecting the language, finding the Chinese words, as well as the Mon-Khmer roots, which were similar to words used in Cambodia and sometimes across the whole region, Thailand and even Malaysia. I was trying to get into a university program but it just didn’t seem it would be possible. I left Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City, where I took 36 hours of private lessons, learning southern dialect. Next, I entered the university, attending an intensive program of twenty hours per week of southern dialect, Vietnamese. The two dialects are so different, that I completed a total of 100 hours of school in Saigon before my listening and speaking of southern dialect reached the point where I was when I had left Hanoi.
Finally, after years of searching, I have found an MA program which will allow me to become fluent in Vietnamese, and to earn a degree. The university is also adding a translation course and of course, the American Translators Association and other American bodies offer a certification exam. So, I have a goal and a 3 year program to get me there. As for paying for the program, it is very cheap, $400 USD for each of the 8 week, 20 hour per week language courses, and a total of less than $2,000 USD for the masters program. The program is intense, but Vietnamese is a very difficult language. If you hope to succeed, you have to put in almost unlimited study time, outside of class. My study regime encompasses about 60 hours of listening, speaking, tutoring sessions, formal classes, reading, and writing every week.