A Fish Returning to Water: Learning Vietnamese

by Ben Bangs, Nov 2, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Think of the expressions we so often use to mean uncomfortable: "In over your head", "Out of your element", "Like a fish out of water". All these cliches have one thing in common: a dissonance between you and your environment. In many ways it's strange that as a postindustrial society, we still hang onto these earthy, straightforward terms, metaphors from an earlier time, reminders that it is we who intrude on nature -- at our peril. But what happens when you find your new spiritual home in an unexpected place -- one which starts out making you feel uncomfortable? Funny, we don't have too many terms for that! Neither do the Vietnamese, but they do have many intriguing things to say to explain an unusual talent, and plenty of praise for the one who cultivates it. If you can learn Vietnamese therefore, DO IT! No matter how unimpressive your command of the language really is, at least trying is the key to open the locked door of the hearts of a people colonized and stomped on one time too many -- a nation that does not trust easily. This is the story of how I unlocked that door, and why I'll never regret it. In 1990, I was in college in Upstate New York in a field parents and guidance counselors had picked out for me without much input FROM me. Going largely on automatic pilot, trading on stereotypes and hoping to be the next great shock jock in a world which increasingly puts corporate image before personality in any broadcasting field, I was nevertheless in a TV-Radio program, hoping (as Foreigner puts it) to be a jukebox hero. For an ego this big with a sense quotient this little, there was only one fix: a trial by fire, a rude awakening! That came when college officials accused me of something I didn't do, and put me on indefinite disciplinary probation. It seems like such a small incident today, but at the time it rocked my ability to trust anybody to the core. For the next six months I floundered, aware only that I needed to take charge of my own life, but with not the slightest clue how, or toward what end. Then "It" happened. In January, 1991 a refugee family shrunken by the inflexible and unyielding rules of two governments with no love lost between them showed up in Rochester, New York at the worst possible time: smack dab in the middle of the worst ice storm the area had had in decades! By their gracious demeanour and lively, easy humor, you'd never know how panicked this must have made them. No matter; they promptly settled in, and pumped the thermostat well up over ninety. So much for one catastrophe. Strangely though, it wasn't till a few months later that an odd idea I'd had upon meeting these angels from the tropics crystalized and sprouted, much like the rice plants which one day are covered in mud, the next springing forth in a carpet of glorious green, as if from nowhere. I'd never known why, but anthropology (the study of humankind) as a subject had always attracted me with its adventure-laden accounts of normal people (like me, maybe) jetting off to wild and exotic lands to live among people as unlike those who had hurt me as could be. Different languages, different color skin, different food...nothing the same as what I was used to except whatever goodness might be common to the human condition. What a relief, what a challenge! In my heart I hoped to one day join the ranks of the discoverers of new cultures, and I took a step toward that goal without knowing it by showing up in class one unremarkable, grey April morning. The teacher promptly gave over the floor to a lady from the International Studies office, who said study abroad could be put on our transcript just like coursework right here. And, we didn't have to just stick to the usual suspects in student travel in Western Europe! I perused the list: Viet Nam?! I knew when I saw it where I would end up going, one way or another. Getting a school to sponsor your travel to a third world country isn't so easy with a disability, though. Both the program that grabbed my attention back then and one I applied to years later found ways to keep me from jacking up their insurance rates by participating with them. No matter: Before I was done, I'd be able to say I'd been to Viet Nam eleven times for a total of two years' cumulative residence in the following eight. How many college semester abroad students could say that? First though, I had to find a Vietnamese language program. How could I hope to live somewhere whose language I didn't speak? Unlike French or Spanish, studying a Southeast Asian language takes some effort, both in the classroom and in finding one in the first place. The gods clearly approved of my plan, however: just across town from me, Cornell University offered now only a regular Vietnamese program, but (more importantly, for I still hoped to be leaving immediately after) a summer program called SEASSI (for "Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute"), a very intensive ten-week course for which you get credit for a year's language study. This course alternates between a consortium of universities, so I was truly lucky that it was just around the corner! But could I pay for it? Somehow, my local bank gave me a loan to attend SEASSI. So when I showed up on the East Hill in mid june, 1991, I stuck out like a sore thumb: the only undergrad, the only one wanting Vietnamese for community (as opposed to research) purposes, the only one having to pay his own way, and the only one with two disabilities: one visual, the other educational -- I'd had absolutely no previous Southeast Asian studies at my little college, and the last time I'd been in a language classroom was in high school. It was French, and merely a requirement. I flunked out! To be brutally honest, I don't think most of the class (students and teachers both) really relished having me among them. I slowed everybody down, especially the very gracious anthropology student who sat next to me every day and took notes for me. At midterm (a mere five weeks after I'd begun), I went to the head of the program, asking to drop out. Luckily, he wouldn't hear of it. Instead, we worked on how to learn languages communicatively in an aural/oral (or "audio-lingual") setting. I returned to class, and finished the term with a respectable B-. More importantly, I made a lasting commitment to truly master the language. The regular teacher wouldn't let me into the second year class he was starting in the fall. It thus became my mission to TRULY EXCEL, in short, to prove his assessment of my potential wrong. As I look back on the SEASSI program, it improved greatly over the years. In 1991 things often seemed chaotic and disorganized, though it was and remains a highly structured, very successful program, IF you know how to study a language in this sort of environment. The key is knowing what each drill's unique procedure is, what they want you to produce, and how you'll be learning to do it. Basically, this is near-total immersion. You're going to learn not just to SPEAK in your new language, but to THINK in it as well -- and to do so automatically, through overpractice and by using common sense to intuit what they want from context. This is a remarkably good model of how you learned your first language, though it certainly has its drawbacks and detractors. The important thing is to participate actively -- a real challenge over a period of almost vie hours a day, five days a week! Stick with the program though, and you'll get astounding results. This and other intensive language programs are well worth the time, money and effort. Look into them! But back to my story. How WAS I going to continue learning Vietnamese? Denied access to the regular course I'd hoped to continue into, I had to find another way to keep my interest in Viet Nam alive. So I registered instead in a Vietnamese history course, taught by one of the greats in the field -- also right there at Cornell. Two days a week then, I commuted across town on a city bus, getting to class on my second campus just in time, then rishing right back for my next period on my "home" campus, which no longer felt like home. I returned to Cornell two afternoons a week as well, doing tutoring sessions with a very nice young lady in a completely different program who nonetheless took time from her busy schedule to help me learn her language. Sometimes I had her check out materials for me to study, then got them back to the library late as thanks! I also picked up textbooks for the university's Thai classes, reasoning that if one Asian language was good, two were better. This made my transit stopis in Bangkok on the way to Viet Nam considerably easier, though I'm certainly nowhere as strong in Thai as in Vietnamese. This kept up until I graduated at the end of the 1991-92 schoolyear. Then I flew to Sai Gon. I have recounted in another story here (Stepping into a new world) how that trip did more for my language skills than the entire twelve months I've just described. There's nothing like HAVING TO use a language to refine and polish the diamond in the rough that classroom instruction almost always leaves. It happened this way. In Vietnamese, every word (indeed, every SYLABLE, whether it's who whole word or not, and no matter its part of speech) has a "tone", in other words, a pitch on which you must "sing" it relative to others, which have their own tones, etc. Imagine the complexity! Two genders on nouns are bad enough! There are no clues to help you memorize the tones either. You just have to do it! That's why every morning at SEASSI had started with "warm-up" exercises which froze the blood and brain cells instead: Ma, ma, ma ma...., reading across the page, comparing and contrasting, practiing again and again, until you got it right. Trying to talk like this in real life made me slower than a snail to listen to. Not much fun! Vietnamese people are always so gracious it doesn't really matter, and the contacts I'd made were no exception. Still, I could go only so far with this thorn in my language learning side. Could I solve the problem? The answer came to me under a cloudy afternoon sky in Bau Ca, my first Viet Nam host's natal village (A million "Afterlife Dollars" is hereby offered to any reader who can help me locate this hamlet on a map!). If words had tones, so must whole sentences! If I focused on the overall melody, rather than the individual notes, I'd be able to crack it! And sure enough, a scant couple of weeks after adopting this plan of action, my "tone-o-phobia" was cured forever. Today I don't give it a hackward glance. This is just one of what I call the "issues" of learning any foreign language. You know, the gender, case endings, tense structure -- anything that makes learning a given language seem truly impossible. If you hope to do so, you must make those things automatic. As hard as it may seem now, remember: Babies do it, therefore, so can you! It just takes practice, but it's got to be smart practice. Make it come naturally. Step back and see the whole forest, not the individual trees in it. If you can do that, you're well on your way. Over the next couple of years I worked on my vocabulary, mostly by listening to Vietnamese pop music and watching the never-ending Paris by Night variety show series and as many of its spin-offs as a poor student's budget could handle. Yes, I was still a student; I'd graduated with one bachelor's, only to go on for another! I few weeks after recovering from the bug which cut short my first trip to Viet Nam, I was on a bus to Seattle, where I worked in a dorm kitchen while I earned Washington state residency status. Then I started a "postbaccelaureate" program -- a second degree, with just the major and any extra distribution you didn't get at your other college required. Over the four years from 1993-1997, I shuttled back and forth between this program, Viet Nam, Honnolulu, California and (of course) home, which had become Memphis, Tennessee. After that, I started shuttling between Viet Nam and Canada, where I made one very good Vietnamese friend who taught me some slang words I can't print here to round out my education. Today I work as a translator and interpreter -- a long way from the shy, chronically underachieving kid who started SEASSI in 1991 with no clue how to learn languages! It's certainly been a wild ride, and it's not over! The teacher I learned most of my later Vietnamese from puts it this way: Language learning is a LIFELONG endeavor. On the day I die, I'll still be learning Vietnamese (and English, for that matter)! I won't be earning academic credit then, but I will have earned something more prescious by far: the lifetime achievement award you give yourself for keeping at a labor of love. What an adventure indeed! WANT TO DO THIS YOURSELF? Studying Vietnamese formally as an English speaking student has gotten much easier in the years since I started out. Just type "Southeast Asian Studies" or "Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute" into your browser. The summer course I took now even has special classes for Viet Kieu who have forgotten their native tongue, called "Heritage classes", which promise to be a real boon to anyone wanting an edge in their proparations to "go back home". There are also several self-study courses on the market, but avoid the ones put out by the overseas Vietnamese in your hometown. A better approach is to get hold of a textbook or two: my favorite choice if I had to do it all over without aid of a class or teacher would be: "Colloquial Vietnamese" by Routledge publishers of London and New York. Whatever you do, get something with a tape -- or be prepared to get tutored as I did by a native. Oh yes, and don't forget to immerse yourself in the world of Vietnamese arts and letters. You'll need to use the dictionary quite a bit when you first start. Lawerence C. Thompson, Jones and Thong and Dang van Liem have put out great introductory readers, but they're out of print; check university SE Asian language collections. Finally, if you're a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), find "Reading and Writing Vietnamese by Stephen O'Harrow and Kim-thu Ton at the University of Hawaii. This latter title has an accompanying CD ROM with full audio/visual capabilities. Take advantage of it! And whatever methods and materials you use, CHUC MAY MAN (Good Luck)!