Language Learning: Tackling Vietnamese with The Dropout Diaries

Anyone that has ever tried to learn a language knows it’s not easy, especially if you are not dealing  with your native alphabet. Barbara from The Dropout Diaries shares some of her struggles trying to learn this difficult, but necessary language .

Walkingon Travels:  What is your language background?

Apparently I speak very good English for someone from Australia. (People have actually said that to me!)

I studied German in high school, but only until grade 10. There were no language options in year 11 and 12 at my school in the outback-mining town of Mount Isa.

Funnily enough, when I first started learning Vietnamese, I suddenly remember a lot of my German vocab. I found that fascinating.

WT:  Is a second language spoken in your home? By who?

My husband is Vietnamese and, funnily enough, he speaks quite good Vietnamese for someone who grew up in Vietnam.

My Vietnamese is terrible so we speak English at home. My husband, who was a househusband for nearly two years, is responsible for teaching our daughter Vietnamese. She seems to understand a bit but she only speaks English. She’s not yet three though, and I’m blown away by her language acquisition skills. There’s plenty of time for her to learn Vietnamese. What she is doing now with English is amazing!

We are sending her to a day care centre where half the staff is Vietnamese and we’re hoping that exposing her to a bit more Vietnamese will help her pick up some language. I’m sure she’ll be correcting my Vietnamese in a few months.

WT:  How long did you study Vietnamese? What other languages have you tried to learn (whether successfully or unsuccessfully)?

I studied Vietnamese for about two years. I started doing three lessons a week when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City and after a while I dropped back to two lessons a week. The lessons were two hours one-on-one with a Vietnamese teacher. And in hindsight I probably should have tried a different teacher before giving up.

I made a very half-hearted attempt to learn Chinese in 2005. I needed a back operation that meant I’d be off work for seven weeks, so I figured I’d use the time to improve my brain. But I discovered I was allergic to painkillers, so I wasn’t functioning very well for most of those seven weeks; either in pain, having a reaction to pain medication or high as a kite on Valium.

I thought perhaps I could learn Chinese subconsciously, so I put my Chinese language CDs on as I went to sleep each night. That didn’t work, although I do remember how to say hello in Mandarin.

WT:  What techniques did you use to learn Vietnamese? What do you feel worked and what didn’t? 

In the first few months of studying Vietnamese I learned a lot of vocab. I didn’t know many people, so I’d take my textbooks with me to lunch and dinner and just memorize the words. Most of the time, someone would look over my shoulder and realise what I was doing and offer to quiz me on the words I was trying to learn. I think that helped my pronunciation (and pronunciation is HARD in Vietnamese).

After a while, I made some friends and found a social life and I spent far less time studying. As we moved away from pure vocab into grammar, things got more complicated and I lost interest. I’m still much more interested in learning the words for things than trying to speak in sentences. Mostly because I can’t bloody well understand anything anyone says. (More on that later.)

WT:  Did you ever use any language programs, apps, videos or other tech based techniques to study?

Nope. Just the god-awful textbook supplied by the language school.

WT:  What were your frustrations with learning the language?

I was well aware that there are regional accents in Vietnam. I figured that since I was living in Ho Chi Minh City I should learn the local dialect/accent. So I specifically requested a teacher from Saigon.

Eventually I discovered my teacher was from Hanoi. But she told me she would teach me the HCMC pronunciation of everything. The main difference between Hanoi and HCMC Vietnamese is that in the north they pronounce one type of D as a Z sound and in the south they pronounce it as a Y sound. (There are two types of D in Vietnamese, normal D and Đ or D-with-a-cross, which is pronounced D.)

Anyway, I was trying to practice Vietnamese everywhere I went and I came to a few conclusions.

First, it’s not common for people to learn Vietnamese and most people assumed that because I could speak some Vietnamese I was fluent, so they would talk to me at a million miles an hour and I would understand nothing. Which was embarrassing all round.

Second, English and Vietnamese are so far apart that the mispronunciations I made were so off-the-planet for Vietnamese people that they could not work out what I was trying to say. From my perspective, I may have gotten a vowel sound a little off or used the wrong tone but because most people have little experiencing dealing with foreigners trying to speak Vietnamese, they couldn’t make the mental leap to shuffle through all the possibilities that sound like what I’d just said. (I’m not sure that makes sense. You know if someone with a thick accent starts talking to you, if they say some word wrong, you repeat the word mentally to yourself … “did they say jiss… jees, geez… oh, they said cheese”.)

The only times I was able to have a conversation in Vietnamese was at cafes and restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker area, where the waitresses had learned English and dealt with many types of English accents. They’d also dealt with many foreigners (tourists and expats) who had tried to learn a bit of Vietnamese, so they had some reference points.  (As in, they could do the Vietnamese version of jiss … jees ..  geez … oh, cheese. Which is fromage in Vietnamese anyway, which is French. YOU SEE HOW CONFUSING THIS LANGUAGE IS???)

So the final frustration was my teacher deciding I wasn’t learning fast enough. She decided I needed to watch teenage soap operas to bring my language skills up to what they should be. And while I was sitting with her, hitting pause and rewind, pause and rewind, on some god-awful high school drama show…. she told me I was supposed to know the phrase they were using. She repeated it. Then she wrote it down. And that’s when I discovered, after two years of learning the Saigon dialect of Vietnamese that my teacher had NEVER told me that in the South V is pronounced Y.

I swore A LOT in English and Vietnamese after the teacher left that day. No wonder I couldn’t understand anyone. Everyone could understand me because I was pronouncing Vs the way the prime minister does (he’s from Hanoi). But when they replied there was no Vs… only lots of Ys. Arrgh!

So I stopped taking lessons from that teacher. My husband was going to become my teacher but we both go lazy about it, and I basically had the pips with the language anyway.

English is all about the consonant sounds. The vowel sounds are not so important. Think about how French, Italian, British, Irish accents sound. It’s always the vowels that are mangled, right? Once you mentally adjust to that accent, you can understand the person, no matter whether they flatten the vowels or round them out like the Queen.

In Vietnamese it’s the opposite. The vowel sounds are important and the consonant sounds are not important. In most cases, you don’t even pronounce the final consonant of a word. And every Vietnamese word is one syllable long, so there’s a lot of consonants that are not pronounced. There’s 11 extra vowel sounds in Vietnamese (I think that’s what I counted once) and a lot less consonant sounds — even before you get to all the consonants that are pronounced Y.

So it all seemed too complicated and I decided I needed a break.

For a light-hearted look at the differences between English and Vietnamese, you can read this post.

WT:  After you weren’t around Vietnamese speaking people for 2 and a half years, did you expect to remember any of it when you returned? What surprised you the most?

We left Vietnam in early 2010 and lived in Singapore and Thailand for nearly two and a half years, then returned.

I couldn’t remember very much when we first got back. I remember asking my husband what the word for “yesterday” was and he gave me such a dirty look.

But now, after being back three months, I’m surprised at what I can recall. And most of what I do remember is from my early studies, when I was sitting down memorizing vocab from the textbook. So it seems rote learning does have a role in language learning, for me at least. Which is bad news for such a lazy learner!

So, after being away for two and a half years, my Vietnamese is still terrible. However, I can order food and drinks, give directions and swear at people who cut me off in the traffic. I can have a basic conversation about my health, my baby’s health, my job, where I live, how long I’ve been in Vietnam and how long I’ve studied Vietnamese. However, that’s about it. They are not satisfying conversations — no way to make a real friend. But for now I’m happy enough to do that.

Most of my husband’s friends have excellent English and so I play word games with them. Usually I translate an English phrase or swear word into Vietnamese and wait for them to work out what I’ve said. It’s so juvenile — and probably something I’ll have to stop soon as my daughter understands a lot now. But it’s been a fun way to pass the time. For example, I’ll translate “liar, liar, pants on fire” into Vietnamese as best I can. But the languages are different, it ends up sounding like “lie, lie, flame pants” … ah, it still cracks me up.

WT:  What are your plans for studying Vietnamese in the future?

Well, I say I need to study again. But I’m busy with a toddler, a part-time job, a fledgling business, a blog and a big corporate client. At the moment I’m not even organised enough to exercise! But I need to be able to keep up with my daughter. I don’t want to be left out of family conversations, especially when we visit my in-laws.

[There are also] two very big reasons why I need to improve my Vietnamese. We are starting street food tours in Ho Chi Minh City so I need much better language skills! [My husband] and I will both do the tours to start with … but it will be so much easier if I can just ask people questions in Vietnamese than having to run everything through him. I also want to improve my Vietnamese so I can research a book about Vietnamese food.

WT: What do you love about the Vietnamese language? Why do you continue to try to learn it?

I’m not sure I actually love the language. But I do need to learn it. If I don’t I will continue to be an outcast whenever I’m with Vietnamese people. And that’s tough at family gatherings.

WT: Lessons learned from your experience?

I think the lesson from my experience is that you should not be afraid to change teachers or learning methods if you are not happy with your progress.

I wasn’t happy with my progress but I kept my teacher because she was so sweet and because SHE could understand me. I just figured it was everyone else that had the problem with my language skills. In hindsight it’s so clear, at the time … it was just easier to stick with the person who could understand me.

You can follow more of Barbara’s adventures through Facebook and Twitter.

All Photos courtesy of © The Dropout Diaries. 

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2 comments

  1. I enjoyed this interview and could relate to some of it. At least half of my ESL students are Vietnamese. We have a large Vietnamese population in Sacramento, and the college where I teach is 5 minutes from the Little Saigon neighborhood. From learning a bit about Vietnamese from my colleague who teaches Vietnamese there–yes, we have a Vietnamese language program– and from teaching them English, I have gotten to know about the tones, their difficulties pronouncing English, etc. I also know that it is a hard language to learn coming from English, so I applaud you for trying and not giving up.
    My family has a similar situation. My husband is Brazilian but we speak English together. We are raising our two kids to be completely bilingual, so he speaks only Portuguese with them. Luckily my Portuguese is pretty good, so I understand everything he says with the kids and most of what my in-laws say. The key for getting our older son to actually start speaking Portuguese was to spend more than 1 month there when he was almost 3, and he was forced to communicate. Suddenly after more than 2 weeks, all the Portuguese that he understood started flying out of his mouth and he hasn’t stopped since. :)

  2. Thanks for this interview, Keryn. I somehow feel a bit lighter now I’ve vented my language frustrations! I must be ready to study Vietnamese again.

    And Jenna — I’m in awe of your ability to speak Portuguese. I think I’m afraid of languages now after the slow torture of learning Vietnamese!

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