Your VCR as language tutor: A Vietnamese case stud

by Ben Bangs, Nov 9, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Quick: Answer these questions honestly and from your gut. 1. How badly do you want to learn an Asian language? 2. How much time do you have? It's the bane of all serious adult language learners: how to get enough time outside the classroom. Few of us can devote ourselves to the full-time study of a language for months at a time. And even if we can, drills and dialogs get boring very quickly. But second language aquisition researchesrs tell us again and again that those who have "instrumental motivation" (a burning desire to learn a language for personal reasons) are the ones who will succeed. So, what if you've got what it takes, but your schedule doesn't? I came face to face with this dilema shortly after graduating from intensive Vietnamese study at SEASSI '91 (See my article, A Fish Returning to Water for details). Suddenly I had other commitments, and a long, LONG way to go even to attain functional fluency. What to do? I am a passionate music lover, so the answer came surprisingly easily and intuitively: I would get into Vietnamese tunes! But among the scant offerings in the world music sections of my local record stores, there were very slim pickings for Viet Nam, none of which offered anything more than the sorts of folksongs we'd been learning in class. That is, when they weren't purely instrumental! It was then that my first Vietnamese friends (the family we'd sponsored from Sai Gon) solved my problem without knowing it through the simple expediant of a birthday present. In late September, they presented me with a CD of Vietnamese pop sung (if memory serves) by Kieu Nga. I loved it, and from then on made regular forrays to chinatowns whenever and wherever I could. I have now visited Vietnamese enclaves in more cities than I have fingers to count them on, and my VCR, TV set and CD player have become my language lab. The "tapes" this lab stocks are sometimes round, others are in VHS format. But best of all, I actually look forward to visiting this particular language lab. No drills, no teacher or classmates to embarrass yourself in fron of. In short, Vietnamese music and videos are an essential part of the ideal self-study regimen (the other part of which is getting out there in the world of Vietnamese speakers and living life to the fullest). There are several factors which make this strategy perhaps more workable here than with other languages. The most important of these is what Washington Post reporter Ylan Q. Mui has called: "Culture on Rewind" -- the many overseas Vietnamese music and variety shows shot in never-ending series (Paris by Night from Thuy Nga Productions, Nu Cuoi va Am Nhac from Van Son video and several others, each with its own target market and unique style). These used to come two tapes to a set, now there are three. Sometimes filmed in an auditorium, sometimes done in music video style, each song gets introduced with a few words about its meaning and origin. There are interviews with the performers, a lot of chit chat among the MCs and lots of humor -- perhaps the best reason to use these tapes as learning tools. When you find yourself laughing along naturally, you know you're progressing! Whether you sit in front of the TV or jog with your earphones on, there are a few special problems to keep in mind when learning Vietnamese through music. First, no matter what people tell you, Vietnamese singing does not preserve the six tones of spoken speech. Native speakers are divided on this question. Some think the melodies incorporate the tones, others complain it's impossible to understand the lyrics because of the lack of tones. Of course the themes of love and loss are universal. Listen out for them, and have a few good friends help you decipher the lyrics like a secret code. It's fun and informative! Another, more serious obstacle to understanding the words to Vietnamese pop songs is that they're basically poetry. While you might think this is true for all music around the world, in Vietnamese it's even more so. If there is a more flowery way to say something, you can rest assured that's how it will be phrased in a song. "Den bao lau tro ve Viet Nam" goes one song (How long before returning to Viet Nam?). The usual way this question would be formed in everyday speech would be: "Bao lau nua moi ve Viet Nam". Be on the lookout for weird word order and fancy alternatives to common words. Song titles can be weird too. Listen to the song and the message should be clear once you're at an advanced intermediate level. Until then, just absorb the sonic world of Vietnamese. And listen to the chitchat. Here's where your VCR comes in. If you confine yourself to the world of sound only, you're going to have a hard time truly learning Vietnamese. As I've said, get out and about in the community. And bring the community to you through live performances -- either those you attend yourself if you live in an area with lots of Vietnamese where these are filmed, or on video through one of the video series. Here's how it works. Every season or so, at least two of the major Vietnamese labels come out with a new offering. By far the most popular at the moment is the "Paris by Night" series, hosted by Nguyen Ngoc Ngan (kind of like the overseas Vietnamese Steven King) and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen (daughter of Marshal/Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky from South Viet Nam days). What makes these tapes so great as learning aids is all the reparte between these two -- and between them, the performers and the audience. As your other learning activities bring you more of the language, what you're hearing will make more sense. But you can also use these tapes as a jumpstart to the rest of your learning: Just use all your mental resources (and a dictionary) to figure out what is being said. As you look up the words in song titles, turn to some of the many Vietnamese web sites (including each label's homepage) to see the lyrics, or try copying the lyrics down and showing them to a native friend. Even if the only benefit you initially derive from these tapes is fun, that's the whole point, and more than sufficient to give your Vietnamese that extra push it needs to become superior. But remember: It only works in conjunction with living your whole life in Vietnamese as much as possible -- exactly like the "part of a balanced breakfast" which fills Saturday morning cartoon commercials. Think of this as mind candy with a trace of nutritional value, and enjoy. There are also Vietnamese language movies out there, but if you can, try to avoid the two types which will be the easiest to get your hands on. First, there are the art films like Scent of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. These are wonderful films to watch in their own right, but there's a reason they're subtitled. There are no clues at all to what's going on other than what you see on screen, and these are basically esoteric art films. Only a small segment of the Vietnamese viewing public are passionate about these films. So rent them once. Then move on. The other kind of Vietnamese movie to watch out for is the type you'll need a shopping bag to bring home. No matter how good a production is, do you really have time for eight or more tapes? Absent these two caveats, there is no film in Vietnamese you should not watch. And when it comes to music, remember not to be elitist. Too many of us think all Asian pop sounds alike. But that's the mark of a linguistic novice. Once you understand the words, it's a different ballgame altogether. A RUNDOWN OF THE BIG NAMES IN VIETNAMESE SHOWBIZ TODAY Apart from a (very) nacent industry in Viet Nam itself, most of the action is in the overseas market. Over the years, productions have gotten longer, and this is due mostly to more chitchat between hosts, but also to more performances too. So it's well worth renting one of these tapes at your local illegal rental place first (none of the Vietnamese studios permits their tapes to be rented), then spend the $25 only on the ones you like all the way through. And another warning: If you come to love a given singer, you'll need to be very patient while they amass enough material for an album of their own. Do not waste the money to buy the CDs from the video, which are no different than what you already have (the performances on-screen are lip-synced). There are exceptions of course, and I have to be honest and admit to having several hundred Vietnamese CDs, material from which was first seen on video. OK, here are the biggies: THUY NGA PRODUCTIONS (Best known for the Paris by Night series, now at number 66). These usually have a theme, and have been hosted for the last several years by a writer (Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, who has an autobiography out in Vietnamese as well as a hard to find book in English) and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen -- daughter of Air Marshal (and later Prime Minister of South Viet Nam) Nguyen Cao Ky. These videos have A LOT of talking between the hosts, much of it humurous. Each installment also has a comedy skit, and past ones have featured fashion shows. They always interview a few of the singers, and usually at least one songwriter. Sometimes Paris by Night tapes are done in MTV style on a theme, featuring scenery from Viet Nam (or so they say). Cost runs about $25US per installment. ASIA (The second most popular) Meant for a younger audience, some of the songs are in English instead of Vietnamese, and a few are even rap! Among Vietnamese audiophiles, Asia is thought to have better sound. More of these are MTV style as compared to Thuy Nga. The current Asia video is a collection of behind the scenes clips interwoven with lots of music, chitchat and two skits, one a comedy, the other a tragedy. Cost is the same as for Paris by Night. HOAI LINh (Otherwise known as The Gioi Nghe Thuat -- World of Performing Arts) A mix of everything we've been talking about, with perhaps less emphasis on MC chitchat. Price is about the same. Van Son (Comedy) Like Hoai Linh, Van Son takes itself none too seriously, except in its most recent offering: Chances Are, a romantic comedy with English subtitles which actually played in theaters on the west coast for a while. Other recent installments have been an evening long fashion show and a return to Viet Nam special, with music playing a definitely subsidiary role. Always upbeat and inovative -- a breath of fresh air in a world that cam seem formulaic at times. Price is about the same. Tinh (Music) Less popular, but still has its fans. Price and length should be a bit less. They don't bring productions out as often; the latest is only #10. Kim Loi (Much like Tinh) All these labels put out CDs, some very worthwhile. Use your judgement on how much to spend, but remember: Having fun is just as important for successful language learning as drills and homework, if not more so. Get your Vietnamese friends to help you choose, and treat your ears to a feast all their own. Bon apitit!