I had a funny experience recently while chatting with “Arun” over at Angry Asian Buddhist. On Twitter, Arun posted something about Vietnamese keyboard support in iOS 6. I tested it on my iPhone, and it worked, so I posted back a message on Twitter saying:
@arunlikhati tiếng Việt là vui. 🙂
I think I said “Vietnamese is fun”. It really hurt my brain to remember all this, which accent marks go where, etc. But it was kind fun. I haven’t used Vietnamese at all in ten years, and I forgot nearly all of it, but it wasn’t always that way.
While in college, I studied Japanese for about a year, but I quit because I didn’t feel I was fitting in with the environment there. In hindsight, I wish I had stuck with it more. Actually, Japanese classes in college taught me some bad habits, and taught nothing about pronunciation and accents. When I think about that, maybe it wasn’t worth continuing. Anyway, I always liked doing things different, and not fitting any “mold”, so I decided to study something different and picked Vietnamese for some reason.
My teacher, a very nice but strict lady who fled North Vietnam in her youth, was very particular about pronunciation. I appreciated this much later when I went there and saw how sloppy American accents in Vietnamese were1, but at the time, her strictness annoyed many students. Vietnamese-American students didn’t like her because she was a Northerner and corrected their slang often, and non-Vietnamese students didn’t like her focus on pronunciation, the drills, homework and weekly “lectures” we all had to give. Each semester, the number of students decreased until there were 4 left. I was the only non-Vietnamese who stayed through all 2 years. But I was really proud that I finished it.
However, I had other language teachers in the past, and they weren’t very good so I appreciated her methods. She was tough, but fair, and really trained her students well. After 2 years, I had completed all the courses and could speak enough Vietnamese to give brief lectures. I once gave a 5-minute lecture on the history of Buddhism. It wasn’t great, but it was an accomplishment.
When I went to Vietnam though, I struggled a lot with communication. I could speak with native Hanoi residents pretty good, but many people in Hanoi came from the neighboring provinces, and spoke with “country” accents or slang I couldn’t understand. For example, Northern Vietnamese from the countryside would often pronounce Vietnam as “Vietlam” for some reason. When I visited the Perfume Pagoda, I was pretty helpless to communicate, which was frustrating. Looking back, I needed a lot more time and exposure. Two months wasn’t enough.
Also, when I came back, I tried to keep it going for a while. I could converse with Vietnamese people OK, especially elderly ones, but the opportunities decreased over time. I had graduated college, and had no job, and I was living with my girlfriend. I had to focus on getting a good job in computers, so I forgot all about Vietnamese. I talked with my teachers less and less until I finally stopped.
So, having a conversation in Vietnamese many years later, though very short, was a weird and nostalgic experience for me.
My wife recently found my old textbooks from college, and I was thinking it might be fun to revive those language skills, using the experiences I have with Japanese and Korean. It’s a shame to let it go to waste. Vietnamese-language resources are still not very common, so maybe I’ll do a “Vietnamese language Tuesdays” or something. It would give me a good excuse to brush up on it. 🙂
Well see. Learning a language a second time is much easier than the first time, but is still an investment of time.
1 Just like my American accent when I speak Japanese. ;p