The end of the silent period

After an exceptionally long and frustrating “silent period”, I am finally speaking real Vietnamese. Many people who have been following my blog posts told me that I should already have been speaking or mixing more with native speakers, rather than continuing my intensive book learning. As hard as it was to resist the temptation to speak earlier, and as depressing as it was to be studying up to 70 hours per week and not being able to order off a menu, now that I am talking, I know I made the right decision. Remember! When the silent period ends, you can only activate language which you have already studied. And I have studied a lot.

While I was working the heavy bag, my new Muay Thai teacher entered the gym. In Thailand, we call the teacher “Kru.” Here, we just say, “Thay,” as we would for a male school teacher.

This was the moment I had been waiting for. I was finally going to be training Muay Thai on a completely Vietnamese team, with a Vietnamese teacher, and everyone would be speaking to me in Vietnamese. In other countries, Taiwan, Thailand, and Cambodia, for example, it only took me three or four months of language studies to get to that point. In Vietnam, however, it took more than eight.

Being in a Muay Thai gym, it is hard to suppress the urge to “wy” (placing hands in prayer position as a sign of greeting and respect). But, after having visited other Muay Thai gyms in Vietnam, I found out that they simply don’t do this. Instead, I walked up to the teacher, who was at least fifteen years older than me, and introduced myself. I began a rather long speech, in Vietnamese, hitting all of the high points of who I am. “My name is Antonio. I come from America. I study Vietnamese at the university in Saigon. I have studied Muay Thai in Cambodia and Thailand, and I want to learn from you.”

The coach was a polite enough guy that he just let me run on. But, from the expression on his face, it was clear that he had no idea what I was saying.

For the last several months, my problem in Vietnamese has been that I can read, write, speak, and listen at a fairly high level, but almost no Vietnamese people could understand me when I spoke. Part of this, I am sure, is because of my own, faulty pronunciation. But part is also due to the fact that most Vietnamese people have never heard a foreigner speak Vietnamese. Often, just seeing a white face makes them tune out, thinking you are speaking English.

The previous day, I had gone to a university to apply for a job. I walked up to a security guard, and told him, in Vietnamese, who I was, why I was there, and asked, if he could help me find the administration office. He nodded and waved his hand, indicating I should wait a moment. Then, he turned to the other three guards, right in front of me, and asked, “Do any of you speak English?”

I shouted, “Em oi!” to get his attention. Then I pointed at my lips and said, “Listen to me speak, I speak Vietnamese.”

It got through to him. I almost heard an audible click in his brain, when he understood that I was speaking Vietnamese. Then, he understood everything I was saying. He directed me to the administration office, and we became friends along the way.

Many Vietnamese people have the same difficulty as the security guard, simply not believing that we are speaking Vietnamese. For other people, including my Muay Thai teacher, however, the problem is that they can’t understand Vietnamese which is less than perfect or which has a foreign accent. Vietnam is not an immigrant country, like the US or Canada. For Americans, particularly in big cities, it is a given that people of all shapes, sizes, colors and races not only speak English, but are US citizens. We are used to and can even identify the accents of various countries. But Vietnamese language, on the other hand, is generally spoken only by Vietnamese.

I had trained with the team the previous day, while the teacher was away. So, the guys on the team already knew me. That first day, they were reticent to talk to me. They actually ignored my Vietnamese, trying instead to communicate using their extremely limited school-English. Most couldn’t even ask simple questions, such as, “How long have you studied Muay Thai?” or “Where did you study?”

It took a few minutes, but once they understood that I could speak Vietnamese, we began having real conversations. They asked me about training in Thailand and in China. We talked about the differences in the various martial arts and the cultures, all in Vietnamese. Often, they didn’t understand what I said, so I had to repeat it or use body language to get them back on course. Once they regained the subject, they understood my spoken words again.

As I said earlier, this was probably the first conversation most of them had ever had with a foreigner and almost definitely the first time they ever heard a foreigner speak Vietnamese. The longer we spent together, the more they began to learn, subconsciously, which consistent mistakes I make. Sort of the way all English native speakers know that Japanese often confuse the letters “r” and “l”. So, when we hear “reary” we know he is saying “really.” But it takes exposure to Japanese people for us to realize that when we hear “or” they may very well be saying “all.”

The same was true for me, talking to my new Vietnamese friends. Some of them gave up quickly, and walked away. Some relied on friends to translate my flawed Vietnamese into better Vietnamese. But some seemed to possess the mental intuition to slowly learn how to understand me.

One young guy, in particular, Tran, a 20 year-old college student, repeatedly came to me, during my training breaks and asked me more and more involved questions. He was very curious about the outside world and he was fun to talk to. He was also very patient. The second day, the day I met the teacher, Tran came up to me and said in Vietnamese, “You speak Vietnamese very clearly.” Of course, I didn’t quite understand the first time and he had to repeat it several times. When I finally realized what he was saying, I burst out laughing. I wished I knew the Vietnamese word for “irony.”

I wish I could have thought of a way of saying, “Yes, I am speak very goodly Vietnamese.” But instead, I went with, “I only speak a little.”

My brother once asked me if I was funny in Chinese. And the answer is, at the risk of sounding arrogant, yes, I am the class clown when I speak Chinese, Khmer, or Thai. And now, in Vietnamese, to the extent that I could, I made everyone laugh.

Part of my approach to language is that people are doing the same stuff in Spanish or Korean that you normally do in English. So, when you learn Spanish or Korean, use it to do your normal stuff. Some of my classmates, and a lot of people on the internet, suggested that I go to karaoke lounges, or hang out in bars or parks chit-chatting with people in Vietnamese. Part of the reason why I refused, apart from observing the silent period, was that I don’t hang out in karaoke lounges, parks, or bars in English. And I certainly don’t have time for chit-chat. I work a lot of hours, training, studying, writing, and filming. When I take time out to spend with people, I want to have meaningful conversations, which broaden my scope and increase my knowledge. To me, a conversation is an exchange of ideas that I care about.

As a result, I had to wait, about eight months, to start talking. Now, I am far from perfect, but if someone really wants to, they can understand what I’m saying. And what I’m saying is something which has meaning for them and for me.

For the time being, I have withdrawn from group classes at the university, opting instead to continue with my private lessons, which afford me the opportunity to speak Vietnamese several hours per day. In addition to speaking together, my tutor and I continue with my academic studies, proceeding into book four of the university textbook series: “VSL: Giao Trinh Tieng Viet”. I recognize that, apart from my flawed pronunciation, the reason I can have meaningful conversations is because of all of the months of countless hours of book work that I have done. Parallel to my course books from the university, I have also completed through book three of the Australian University series, “Tieng Viet” by Buu Khai and Phan Van Giuong.

If you want to speak a foreign language, you have to have something to talk about. You also need the grammar and vocabulary to express your ideas and opinions. Without first doing the book learning, you can never reach that level.

It is extremely boring to sit in Highland Coffee with your Vietnamese language partner saying, “What color do you like?” and “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Why not just keep studying, and hold off on the talking till you can ask, “How will the Japanese earthquake affect the economy of Vietnam.” That’s what my tutor and I have been discussing the last few days, and I find it very interesting.