I was rubbish at languages in school. I studied French for a few years, and German as well, but being honest I never tried very hard at either. Its probably not the best thing for a professional language teacher to admit too, but in the context of a high school day when I had to grasp issues as complex as trigonometry, osmosis and puberty, being able to speak another language fell pretty low on my agenda.
These days I study Vietnamese, taking a lesson a week with a very good teacher named Hop, and practicing with my long suffering girlfriend who also teaches me a range of useful bits of vocabulary linked with having a girlfriend (drive me to work; buy me a drink; give me money; etc). Whilst I think I am making decent progress, and can now hold a very basic conversation as long as the other person both talks slow and possesses infinite patience, it turns out learning Vietnamese is a whole different ball game to learning French or German.
For a start, Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic language. This means every word has simply one syllable, and sentences are formed from combinations of these syllables. This seems easy enough, until you then encounter the problem that those syllables change meaning depending on the application of a range of tones and accents. Thus, you can go into a fruit shop and ask for either dừa, dứa, or dưa, and you’ll be presented with either a watermelon, a pineapple or a coconut, depending on how you pronounce the word.
Such subtleties can have a range of difficult implications. Take the example of the hailing of one’s father. The word ‘Oi’ in Vietnam is considered neither rude nor abrasive, but rather is used as a simple word designed to elicit the attention of a listener. ‘Adam oi’, is how you would say ‘Hey Adam’. Thus, to hail one’s father, one would use the word for father, ‘bố’, with ‘oi’: ‘bố oi!’. In this case the accents over the ‘o’ demand that the letter is pronounced a certain way, in this case with a rising tone.
But, get that tone wrong, and pronounce a downward ‘bò oi!’, and you’re in the unfortunate position of having just called your Dad a cow.
Also, and I say this with the greatest amount of respect for the locals who’s country I have inhabited, the Vietnamese aren’t exactly forgiving when it comes to listening to a struggling Westerner trying to produce their language. If the word you are trying to say has merely the slightest error of tone or pronunciation, they will generally not try and figure out what you’re trying to say, but rather simply stare blankly back at you. The onus of accurate communication is very much on you.
That said, I am enjoying learning the language. Hop set me homework last week, writing about my week, and I produced almost three pages of pretty good written Vietnamese, albeit completely lacking in the correct written tones. When I’ve got time to sit and think through each word, I can come up with some decent stuff, although I am still a very slow speaker.
But as with anything, and to steal a motto from the school where I work, simply practicing makes perfect. If you do enough of anything you’ll get good at it. I’m an impatient bastard at the best of times. I generally want everything yesterday. But patience is a virtue. As long as you keep on trying to learn a language, over time you will simply absorb it, especially if you live in a country where it is spoken.
So give me a little time, I’d say, and I might just be able to both have more than a basic conversation, and no longer refer to members of my family as cattle.