Friday, 4 March 2011

Learning Vietnamese

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.]
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”.


  1. I think my insides just broke laughing. Erika

  2. Great post - year by year living here I kid myself that I will learn it by somehow just soaking it in.

    You're right though about stock phrases. I too can say "too expensive" my other phrase, when asked how I am is: "strong like buffalo".

  3. Thanks Tabitha - day better now!

  4. Great blog, I am currently plateauing in the south of Vietnam. you're getting actual lessons? I gotta get me some too...
    Michael, Long Xuyen

  5. Thanks for your comments Erika, Steve and Nina!

    Michael, we have had three different Vietnamese teachers now (we get too embarrassed about giving up so keep having to get new ones). The last guy used to point to Nathan and say "He is better than you", at least three times every lesson.

  6. I can't believe that I just googled "vagina meat" but it didn't bring me to your fabulous blog.....

  7. Understandably, the "pork" issue was never raised by my parents, so your blog is proving quite educational (this is probably not one of the posts I'll discuss with anyone I'm related to, though)!

    My dad enjoyed your earlier ATM/bike dramas, incidentally!

  8. Thanks to the internet, i can track you down with ease. I do have that book and I thought prostitute? the first time.

    Nice meeting y'all, say hi to rutting metal dog for me.

  9. Danni: Well damn, it turns out there's quite a lot of vagina meat on the internet!

    Lee Tran: The southern Vietnamese word for "pork" thankfully doesn't have the same issue. I know several foreigners here who will use the southern word, even in Hanoi, specifically to avoid the "vagina meat" problem.

    Tony: Nice meeting you too, and looking forward to checking out your blog in an action of reciprocal stalking.

  10. This is THE most charming blog. I was in Hanoi for four months a few years ago and this is making me super nostalgic. I lived on Hang Bong too ! Wow, the times I had trying to say that in a million different tones.

    Now, thanks to your blog, I am hungover, in Jerusalem, day-dreaming about Pho. Ok, I can't really blame your blog for being hungover.

    Thanks for the distraction anyway! x

  11. and i thought it was just me!! knowing i'd be in vietnam for a few weeks, as a tourist, i got a language tape. first lesson, a burst of sound with NO RELATION to the letters on the screen...
    gave that up, then tried to learn a few words in a vietnamese restaurant. from the looks i got, i must have said the pork word wrong...

  12. I've followed you from your Newtown blog. I'm loving all your Vietnam tales! This one just had me crying with laughter... my workmates are now looking at me strangely.

  13. A brilliant read, thank you.

  14. Thanks for your comments, guys! Nathan is now too scared to post any more entries due to mine being clearly better (you can take that as a CHALLENGE, Mr Thomas).

    Todd: I've met several Newtownians in Hanoi, which is surely statistically unlikely, right? I think there might be some kind of strange spiritual connection between the two places (other than that they both smell). I shall investigate further.

  15. This is my first comment on your blog since this post is so good that I have to say something. You're so observant and witty and I think no expat learning Vietnamese could have written about it any better.
    Btw, if it makes you feel any better and in case no one has told you, many Vietnamese (even teachers of English) mispronounce the word fax as f***. So no need to feel embarrassed and g'luck with the language!

  16. I've only just read this and had tears in my eyes (laughter, I assure you). Fantastic! Partcularly having just read the most current blog on 'poo happens'. I had one misunderstanding though, which perhaps I should not share for risk of embarrassing myself. But what the hell. admiring your artwork, I initially thought you might have been trying to buy condoms. Errhum.

  17. haha wonderful post, and I can totally relate to feeling a failing at learning Vietnamese, even more of a failure though because my mother is Vietnamese! ah dear.. good luck with your studies! :)

  18. I can totally relate with most of the hitches you've experienced as well as some of your anecdotes. I'm about 8 months into the language now and as much as I feel like I'm making some strides there are days that completely defeat me.

    As for pronunciation slip-ups, I have many times slipped on pronouncing my street name 'Long', and instead said a slang word meaning 'cunt' (lồn). Only those close enough to me will point this out but I'm sure I'm unknowingly amusing people with it.


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