Two older American guys, hanging out in the alley next to my house, introduced me to their Vietnamese friend. When I said my name, one of the Americans asked me, “Es usted Espanol?” I answered, “No, sono Italiano.” The two Americans laughed knowingly and asked me if I knew how to cook. The Vietnamese friend obviously didn’t catch any of this. He asked me, in very tortured English, “Where you from?” I told him in Vietnamese, “I am American but Italian origin.” I learned to use this construction in my Vietnamese school because several of the North American students were overseas-Asians. So, we all needed to be able to express our heritage vs. our citizenship.
He repeated, in English, “Yes, where you from?”
“I am American but Italian origin.” I answered again, in Vietnamese. He didn’t look satisfied. So I said in Vietnamese, “My mother and father are Italian, but I was born in America.”
He replied in English, “Oh, you are Thai. I didn’t think you looked Thai.”
These people are a mystery to me. And I don’t have the patience or the thousands of years it would take to get to understand them.
This is the eternal struggle of the Vietnamese language student. It is absolutely impossible that after ten months of study, my pronunciation is so off that this guy thought I said I was Thai. Clearly, he wasn’t listening. Or he didn’t expect that a foreigner could speak Vietnamese, so he was listening for English. One reason I spoke to him in Vietnamese, however, was because the older of the two American guys had been talking to him in bar-girl Vietnamese. I honestly thought that if the young Vietnamese guy could understand that a-gramatical, mispronounced, misused street-language, he would be pleasantly surprised to hear my educated Vietnamese.
But I was wrong. And this is the type of misunderstanding that you just have to live with if you are going to study Vietnamese in Vietnam.
When I met the Muay Thai instructor, I gave a longish speech. But I didn’t know how the speech would go over, because in spite of having spent nearly ten months in the country, I have always had one foot in and one foot out, since I got here. After my first three months, in Hanoi, I left for seven months. Then, after five months in Saigon, I left for six weeks. And while I am writing this article, I am simultaneously, doing a Skype interview for a job in Taiwan and filling out applications for jobs in Malaysia.
I don’t know what it is about Vietnam that is so hard for me to crack.
My friend Dave arrived in Vietnam from Canada about two weeks ago. He is very interested in learning the language and the culture, so he arranged some meetings with girls he met online, to do language exchange. After the first few meetings he basically said that he wasn’t that interested in doing language exchange because by speaking only English, he gets to ask questions and listen to the girls talk about their lives and experiences, growing up in Vietnam.
By rejecting the language, Dave has probably learned more about the culture, in two weeks, than I have after ten months. For me, because I chose to learn the language first, I am only just getting to this point of cultural understanding.
Now I can have real conversations. And I am learning a lot from the hours I spend with my tutors. Yesterday, my tutor was telling me that he is from a home town near where the Ede people live. They are one of Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities, which is particularly interesting to me because they are ethnically related to the Cham and the Jarai, two other tribes I have studied. He told me there was actually an uprising as recently as five years ago, which the government had to put down by force. This was incredibly interesting to me. He also told me about going to school with Ede children. He said “They don’t study much, only through sixth or tenth grade. Then they work.”
He told me that in the past, the Ede lived and worked with elephants, but today there only 24 elephants in the whole province.
He also told me that to work for the government you have to have no religion and can only marry with permission.
Having this discussion was like finding a nugget of gold after panning the river in vain for months. But it took me so long to get my Vietnamese to this level. My friend Dave may be learning stories like this from day one.
I was about half way through my speech to my boxing teacher, when it became apparent that he didn’t understand a word I said, he was just politely listening. I noticed that several of the students understood me, but to keep the teacher from losing face, I simply ended my speech. A few of the students gave me knowing grins. It was both heartwarming and pathetic. Pathetic, because I had worked so hard, but still couldn’t communicate with everyone.
After our initial meeting, the coach just talked to me. Since he knew he wouldn’t understand my responses, he just talked and talked, not requiring me to say anything. And I was so grateful. There is a certain kind of person, some older people or simpler people, who, like many Vietnamese, don’t know how to deal with a foreigner who is still learning the language. Their strategy is just to talk your ear off and assume you can follow. I appreciate that so much more than the people who do sign language and refuse to talk.
The coach worked with me personally, all the while, keeping up a constant barrage of language. When we took breaks, we sat together and he rattled on about fighting and training. This was the moment I had been waiting for since my first visit to Vietnam, in 2007. I count myself doubly blessed, not only would very few foreigners ever get this far in the study of the langue or the martial art, but these older teachers often recognize that I am at a very different level than their young, local students. And so, I am hearing and learning things the kids may never know.
Most of the students understand about a third of what I say in Vietnamese. The teacher understands nothing. But, I understand at least half of what he is saying, and the rest I get from his body language. And this is how we learn. You sit and listen and listen and listen…. In the last few moths, I had been moving further and further away from ALG theory (Automatic Language growth), thinking it was impossible to create a listening-only learning environment for myself. I began admitting, more and more, that formal book study was the single most efficient tool you could use in learning a new language. Now, I have ALG with my teacher. I have listening, plus context, plus body language, and there is repetition. I care about the subject. The communication is real and meaningful. All of the tools are present which are necessary to promote learning a language through acquisition.
BUT, in defense of book study, I believe that I am only benefiting from these interactions now because my Vietnamese is at a sufficient level. If I hadn’t done the book learning, ten months of just hanging out with Vietnamese people wouldn’t have gotten me to this level.