I am currently planning a trip to Vietnam in six months with Tu, my college roommate.
As a 5’10” American female with blonde hair and blue eyes, I know I will stick out just by my appearance, but I don’t want to make the difference worse by being the foreigner who knows nothing about the language or culture of the country to which I am traveling.
My roommate, an international student from Hanoi, has been trying to teach me basic Vietnamese for the past six months, but sometimes learning the language feels like a losing battle. With six tones and 11 vowels, Vietnamese definitely puts me to the test.
I thought it looked easy enough. After all, it uses a latin alphabet, and the words seem easy to pronounce to a native English-speaker. I was wrong.
My very first lesson included a graph showing how the word “Ma” could mean six different things depending on the inflection the word is given. That one word could mean horse, ghost, but, mother, grave and rice seedling, and it was up to me to raise, lower, keep steady, or make a glottal stop with my voice when reading that word to be understood.
Tu grew annoyed when she would write a sentence in Vietnamese and I would read it back in a way that left her confused and unable to understand what I meant. What the hell is a falling-rising tone anyway? How you raise and lower your voice at the same time? My errors even made her angry sometimes, like when I once meant to say đi, and I accidentally said đĩ, and my intention of asking please actually came out as calling her a whore.
Once Tu left to spend her summer in Hanoi, I was alone with a Vietnamese vocabulary limited to greetings, goodbyes, numbers, and swear words. I was at a dead end, not skilled enough to learn anything I could correctly pronounce from a textbook, and out of help from a native speaker.
I turned to the Pimsleur Approach. After checking out ten Pimsleur Approach: Vietnamese CDs from the library and listening to them completely, speaking when directed and paying attention, I could successfully ask for the general location of a street, ask someone if they would like to eat or drink, and order a beer or wine. Just don’t ask me to read or spell anything Pimsleur taught me.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still excited to learn this language. The Pimsleur Approach seemed to work better than teaching myself words I couldn’t say, but it’s completely audio and it’s going very slowly. I still can’t correctly read three consecutive words. I also am stuck learning the vocabulary most needed by an adult American on a short business trip to Northern Vietnam.
What do you say when there are three rising accents in a row? How to the Vietnamese manage to stop their voices from rising higher and higher and higher, sounding incomprehensible and silly? How do Vietnamese speakers ask questions without raising their voices at the end like I always do? How do they master the dreaded “Ng-“ sound at the beginning of a word?
Tones are difficult to learn. That’s the hard truth of tackling a tonal language. After four and a half years of high school and college level Spanish, I am nowhere near fluent, but after a week in my first year of Spanish class I could speak and read and be understood. Vietnamese is a different story.
Vietnamese is a fight, but I am willing to keep fighting. Even if it means accidentally swearing and being misunderstood sometimes, I am determined to speak with some level of comprehension. Learning a new language is always a challenge, but the reward will be great.
Six months of enduring troubles with tones until I finally see how much my work has paid off.