Monday, June 25, 2007


As part of the seminar, we’re learning elementary Vietnamese so that we can eventually converse with Vietnamese who don’t speak English. I was really gung-ho about starting a fourth language until reality set it…it’s really, really hard.

Each morning before delving into the historical concepts of Vietnam’s past, we get an hour of language instruction. Teaching a language from scratch is not easy, and our teachers have been very nice and patient. After three days we were pretty solid on the numbers and a bunch of useful greetings.

We’ve also made difficult forays into the six tones in Vietnamese. Some sound like a pebble splashing into a pond while others are what I would image a dying pterodactyl once sounded like. The teacher writes examples on the board…

“ma mà má
mả mã mạ”

****(The blog doesn't recognize two of the symbols, but the first square is supposed to be an "a" with a question mark above, while the second "a" has a dot beneath.)

He sounds them out for us…


Then he goes around the room asking each of us to give it a shot…


He does his best to help the poor student out but it’s like trying to teach a drunk to walk straight. Our pronunciation has improved a little bit, but it’s still frustrating. Turkish has sounds that are unnatural for an English speaker, and in rapid conversation, I often let the proper pronunciation slip. But if I focus, I can in fact get my mouth to make the sounds. With Vietnamese, on the other hand, I feel like I could spend my whole life trying to master the “ma’s” and never sound quite right.

Unfortunately, the little thingamabobs on the vowels matter. The teacher illustrated this by pointing out that each “ma”, for instance, is an entirely different word, writing each on the board…

ma = ghost
= but
= cheek
mả = tomb
= horse
mạ = (young) rice sprouts

OOF! But there is one silver lining to Vietnamese being unbelievably hard—I no longer consider Turkish very difficult. Just as I started thinking Spanish was easy when I began Turkish, now I look back to easily-pronounceable Turkish words with nostalgia.

Maybe in order to motivate myself to study Vietnamese I need to take a week of Chinese lessons.

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