One of my goals here in Vietnam is to learn Vietnamese. I already speak Vietnamese, but at a very conversational level and the main person I speak to on a regular basis is my mom. This means that my vocabulary is very limited; I learned while trying to rent that I didn’t know terms, like contract; however, I am very familiar with food terms!
I don’t know how to read or write; I literally don’t know how to pronounce my street name so I write it down and show it to cab drivers, rather than butcher the name and end up god knows where. So I signed up for private classes at CICER (Centre for International Education Exchange and Research). At 5 USD per hour, this actually pays for your teacher to come to you (only if you live in districts 1, 3 and 5). I’ve signed up for the month of March, 3 times a week for 2 hour sessions.
I had my first session with my teacher, Cô Phuoc. She’s quite nice and about my mother’s age. She told me of her tragic life, how her first love left for the US and tried to sponsor her right when Vietnam closed its doors on emigration. After she finally married and had two kids, her husband passed away merely 7 months after her second was born. I told her that she was very brave. No, she says, I have a sad life!
We’ve gone through a lot of the basics. We go through the sounds and I repeat after her. We then read a few words and sentences based on the sounds we learned. I can handle most of this. Cô Phước then dictates me words we just learned. That’s when I get in trouble. I write one word – no this actually means X; I change the accent – no that means Y. After five iterations, I may get it right.
Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means changing the tone (not the sound) of a word changes the meaning. This can be very subtle and is a very different concept from other languages. I also have some issues with certain sounds. For example, ng vs. nh sounds the same to me, which is problematic when trying to write. And when I try to pronounce ơ (sort of like e in French), Cô Phước tells me that I sound like a French person and I tried to explain to her that I grew up speaking French in Montreal
I think my efforts to learn Vietnamese will be worthwhile. I've already felt some synapses have after a few things Cô Phước said, little ah-ha moments. I have this fantasy that one day, all of a sudden, everything will click and I’ll be fluently writing, reading and speaking Vietnamese. Somehow I don’t think it will be so…