Learning Vietnamese is not the impossibility many expats come to believe

By Story: HASHAM WALI on April 14,2017 03:11 PM


Illustration: KAN TRANT

There is an indiscernible quality to Hanoi that either stops expats from ever wanting to leave or, if they do decide to up sticks and move, soon pulls them back from wherever they went. The high salary to cost of living ratio certainly helps, along with the ease of finding work and the relatively large community of expats. But it is much more than that. This city gets under your skin. It becomes a part of you. It may not be as well-organised as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, nor as wild as Bangkok or even HCMC, but it has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that seems to keep people here for years and years.

Hanoi also differs from these other cities in one more crucial way - a long term expat can get by for decades in any of those other places without ever having to learn a single word of the local lingo. This is not the case in Vietnam’s capital, where the general level of English among local people is far lower than in Southeast Asia’s other metropolises. While it is true that foreigners don’t need to be able to speak the language in order to survive, it is widely agreed that the Hanoi experience is greatly enrichened by knowing how to produce even a few words and phrases. It is strange then, given that this fact is common knowledge, that so many seasoned expats fail to grasp even a basic level of Vietnamese.

On the surface, it appears that foreigners’ struggles can be attributed solely to the reason that, well, Vietnamese is just so damned difficult, and in certain respects, especially for those unfamiliar with tonal languages, it is. There are lot of new sounds to come to grips with that a native English, French or Spanish speaker has never before had to produce. This can be somewhat daunting for someone fresh off the boat. Even those with the best of intentions may feel disheartened when their earnest attempts at communication are met with quizzical looks and copious amounts of head scratching by shopkeepers and servers alike. It is hard to keep trying when you think you’re speaking Vietnamese and other party reacts like you’re attempting to converse in Medieval Danish. As a result, ego bruised and beaten after numerous failed attempts, most foreigners stop bothering to try and revert to a mixture of English spoken very slowly and charades.

This initial hurdle is also the biggest one on the road to possessing a conversational level of Vietnamese and, although a lot of the blame can be placed on shoulders of the foreigner, there is some culpability on the part of local people as well. The majority of the time people are well aware they are absolutely butchering the pronunciation of individual words but local people could at least try to give a little leeway when it comes to producing these sounds, instead of simply shrugging their shoulders and not even attempting to decipher what people are trying to say from context. Even if a person messes up the pronunciation of a key word it should be clear that when somebody is staring at their phone and looking lost and asks, ‘what is this street called?’ but mispronounces ‘pho’, they are not in fact asking, ‘what are these rice noodles called?’ A little more deductive reasoning from the fair people of this city would go a long way to encouraging others to persevere with the language.

My personal experience learning Vietnamese was a lot smoother than it is for most people as I’ve never been afraid to make a fool of myself. No matter how many times I got thrown off that bull, I kept getting back on for another ride. Eventually, things began to start clicking and the pronunciation of frequently used words and sentences started to become second nature. I must disclose that I did have something of a starting advantage in that I had previously lived in China for a couple of years, meaning that Vietnamese was not my first foray into the world of tonal languages.

Two other things contributed a great deal to my success with Vietnamese. First and foremost was the fact that I started taking lessons with the then nascent Let’s Speak Vietnamese (LSV) twice a week. I was very fortunate to be taught by an excellent teacher called Hanh and to be learning along with a group of similarly motivated students. No matter how hungover I was, I still managed to crawl to class two mornings a week because I knew that my classmates would be there come rain or shine (and probably be feeling just as bad as I was). The second factor was my being single at the time. I held the assumption that being able to whip out a bit of Vietnamese would work wonders with the ladies of Hanoi and have them swooning around me in no time. I cannot attest to the success of this belief - a gentleman never tells after all - but it did give me the opportunity to put what I had learned in the classroom to use in real life. While this was great it ended up with me possessing a rather lopsided set of vocabulary, as I knew how to flirt in Vietnamese before I knew the numbers one to ten or what the words for ‘apple’ or ‘chair’ were.

Even though I now have a fairly decent level of Vietnamese, thanks in no small part to my girlfriend who affords me the opportunity to use it several hours a day, I am still prone to every kind of error under the sun, from accidentally using the wrong pronoun or saying the slang word for ‘penis’ when I actually want to say ‘pomelo’. But these are all growing pains associated with learning any language. Mistakes will be made, people will laugh, and the world will continue to turn. For me, Vietnamese, while certainly different, is not markedly more difficult than the French or German I studied at school. What I will say though, is that those who feel disillusioned with their progress should keep sticking it at it, because as great a city Hanoi is for an expat who doesn’t speak the language, it is twice as good for one who does.

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