The word that most crops up when you ask expats in Hanoi about their level of Vietnamese is “plateaued”. What this means is that they learned how to say “That’s too expensive!” and “I am learning Vietnamese!” and then they gave up.
Nathan and I fall squarely into this category. We have given up three times now. Each time we take it up again, we somehow regress even further, so now we’re actually worse Vietnamese speakers than before we left Australia.
When we gave up last time, we were learning the different professions. This was the illustration in our textbook for “secretary”:
There are several stock-in-trade excuses that we use to justify why we keep giving up. The first is that Vietnamese is very difficult to learn. This is true. The entire Vietnamese lexicon consists of just a dozen one-syllable words, placed in various configurations to create baffling compound nouns and phrasal verbs (okay, so maybe it’s two dozen). Yet more mileage is then squeezed out of these same few words by adding an array of accents and tones in different combinations, to completely change their meaning and pronunciation every time.
We tried a divide and conquer approach, where I remembered the vocab, and Nathan remembered how to pronounce it. This resulted in situations like the following, which occurred in a taxi, trying to direct the driver to the train station:
Me: The word for “station” is “ga”.
Nathan: Okay, I will try to pronounce it. “Gà”.
Driver: [Responds as best as can be expected when someone gets in his cab and says “chicken”.]
Nathan: Not that one. How about “gá”?
Driver: [Well, now he’s using the verb “to harbour gamblers”.]
Nathan: Okay, I’ll try “gã”.
Driver: [Now he’s saying “young chap”… A chicken is harbouring young gambling chaps…?]
Nathan: Maybe it’s “gả”?
Driver: [He wants to give away his daughter in marriage? To me? To a chicken?]
Nathan: Umm, what else?
Me: You haven’t tried “gạ”.
Nathan: Oh yes! “Gạ”!
Driver: [And now he’s seducing a young girl. That’s just not right.]
Nathan: STATION!! TRAINS!!
Driver: Station! Yes, OK!
I don’t know about you, but I think the word for “chicken” and the word for “seducing a young girl” should be quite different.
This conservation also illustrates the second excuse that we use for not speaking Vietnamese: it’s actually less painful for everyone involved to just use basic English, or mime, or interpretative dance (like I did in the DVD shop when asking for a yoga video), or in fact any form of communication other than our mangled Vietnamese. For example, I showed this drawing to the ladies in the pharmacy:
They were a bit confused, so I modified it slightly:
And voila, my de-worming tablets for the treatment of smiling worms were handed over instantly. The whole transaction was over in 30 seconds. My bowel movements, on the other hand, were not.
The third excuse is that Vietnamese people simply laugh - loudly, sometimes bent double and slapping their thighs - when we attempt to talk to them in Vietnamese. They point, and guffaw, and sometimes even call their friends over to have a listen, but it’s not because they’re mean and uncharitable, it’s because what we’re saying is absolutely hilarious. I would laugh too if someone used the word “penis” when trying to buy a “pomelo”, which I did so often that I now just gingerly point at the fruit in question, my lips firmly sealed.
It does seem that for every word in the Vietnamese language, only one slight tweak is required to change its meaning to “penis” or “front bottom”. We were introduced to this phenomenon early on in our Vietnamese-learning career, when we were taking a class with the other volunteers. The teacher had created cards featuring different kinds of foods that we had to practice buying, by saying “I like X. Please give me X”. The teacher would cringe and startle every time someone got the card that said, “I like pork. Please give me pork”. The “pork” card was then swiftly removed from the exercise. Intrigued, we tried our “pork” vocab on a Vietnamese colleague after class. It turned out that what we were saying, over and over again, was “I like vagina meat. Please give me vagina meat” (now, if that doesn’t boost the number of readers coming from Google searches, then nothing will).
The final excuse is that ignorance is bliss. Sometimes you just don’t want to know what’s going on around you, or more particularly, what’s being said about you. My enthusiasm to learn more adjectives stopped pretty suddenly after I learned the word for “fat” (and yet, strangely, my enthusiasm for Choco-Pies didn’t).
Annoyingly, there’s quite a number of expats who do speak Vietnamese, and very well. Their very existence reveals that all these excuses are just that, and my Vietnamese friends will all too readily proffer them as evidence that it’s not as impossible as I try to claim. Damn them, especially that Canadian Joe guy whose Vietnamese is so legendary that they put him on the telly.
And it’s true. The excuse that it’s difficult doesn’t hold much ground when you’re arguing with someone who has themself learnt excellent English, not exactly the easiest language to master. And sure it’s embarrassing being laughed at and telling someone that you like their vagina meat, but you know what else is embarrassing? Living in a country for over a year and not being able to pronounce your own street name properly.
So it’s back to the textbook with its interesting perspective on the secretarial profession. Maybe this time we’ll spend more time on studying, and less on excuses. And really, how hard can it be to learn a language where the word for “clothes” is “shirts pants”.