When I lived in Taiwan, people were always asking me “Can you speak Chinese?” Now, I’m white, and I certainly don’t ‘look’ like I should be able to speak Chinese. In Vietnam, where I actually can speak Vietnamese, I almost never get asked. But in Taiwan, where I couldn’t speak Chinese, people were asking me all the time. Is this some kind of trick?
We’ll come back to this later, but first, let’s try changing the question a bit:
Why can’t you speak Vietnamese?
Vietnamese isn’t useful
Chinese is a global language with more than a billion speakers, in countries like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong (yes Mandarin is common), Singapore, and Malaysia. Vietnamese, on the other hand, seems much less useful, with native speakers in basically only one country. However, it’s worth noting that Vietnamese native speakers outnumber both French and Italian native speakers. It’s hard to imagine someone living in France, where English is much more prevalent, saying “I don’t want to learn French because it’s just not that useful.” And yet that’s what people say about Vietnamese all the time. The fact is that it’s incredibly useful, especially because you are here.
Vietnamese is too hard
With up to six tones, lots of new sounds, and more regional dialects than you would care to count, Vietnamese can be tough. Training your tongue and ear to reproduce and recognize all those sounds and tones takes time. And just when you think you’ve got it down, you meet someone from another province whose accent is completely different, and you have to mentally re-calibrate all those sounds on the fly. Yes, Vietnamese is difficult. But you can do it!
I’m not good at languages
Learning any language requires work. You don’t need to have some mythical ‘gift for languages’ in order to make progress. In fact, this mentality can actually be self-defeating and disrespectful. Here’s an example: NBA sharp-shooter Ray Allen has a lethal 3-point shot, and is the all-time leader in made 3-pointers. In one interview, he was asked about his ‘gift’. His response: Don’t call it a gift. It’s a talent, and I work really hard every day to shoot the ball this well. To call it a gift is to disrespect all the hard work I’ve put in. I think the same is true for ‘gift for language’; it’s a skill, not a gift. Getting good at anything takes time and hard work.
People still don’t understand me
This can be very frustrating. One factor that doesn’t get enough attention is Vietnamese people aren’t used to hearing their language spoken badly. Because there are so few foreigners trying to learn Vietnamese, people here struggle to recognize our ‘funny’ accents. They’ve only spoken Vietnamese with native speakers, who speak it perfectly. Many foreigners get discouraged, believing that ‘They understand me but they pretend they don’t.’ Bullshit. If you speak clearly and correctly, people will understand. But sometimes we think a little too highly of our pronunciation, especially in the beginning, and haven’t learned to recognize the small but important differences. Don’t get frustrated; use these moments as a learning tool to improve your pronunciation.
Vietnamese people don’t expect us to
Imagine walking down the street in America and an Asian guy stops you to ask the time. Which is the appropriate response?
A. “Wow, you speak English so well! How long have you been in America? Are you married? Where do you live”
B. “Hey guys, you won’t believe it, this Asian dude is speaking English. Come on, let’s take a picture with him!”
C. Try your best to reply to him in Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean), since he probably can’t understand English.
D. “It’s eleven thirty.”
But ask the time in Vietnamese, and you’re much more likely to get A, B or C. In Taiwan, people asked me all the time if I could speak Chinese. This very subtle question that they ask you all the time conveys a sense of expectation, and a bit of pride: you are in our country now, you should speak our language, and if you can’t, you should at least try. But since a Vietnamese person is unlikely to ask you, I will: Can you speak Vietnamese?
OK, fine. I want to learn Vietnamese
Great! Of course it won’t be easy, but here’s my advice, based on my experience learning the language.
Get a book
In Saigon and Hanoi, you have some options. In Da Nang and elsewhere, it’s tougher. Fasaha is a giant bookstore on Le Duan in the city center, and they have some books for foreigners learning Vietnamese.
Find a teacher
Or even just a friend. Meet for coffee once a week and have them go through the book with you. Be strict with the pronunciation and tones from the beginning. It’s easier to fix when it’s new, but those bad habits are much more difficult to correct later. Be sure you pay them for their time. Don’t accept free lessons. If you’re handing over money each time, even if it’s just a little, it’s much more motivating. Trust me on this one.
I initially spoke a lot of Vietnamese with bar girls. They are a captive audience, and they probably learned English the same way, chatting in the bar, so they tend to be more sympathetic to your cause. Go early when the bar’s not busy; they’re probably bored anyways and welcome the opportunity to shoot the breeze.
Tackle the menu first
Ordering food in Vietnam is pretty easy, grammar-wise, and the conversations are relatively predictable, so you can become competent quickly. Also, it’s something you can do every day, so you can get lots of practice and it feels rewarding. This is much more motivating than, say, talking about your family, which sounds simple enough, but the Vietnamese system for organizing family is a nightmare (different words for mom’s older brother, dad’s younger brother, etc). Go for the low-hanging fruit.
You’re probably never going to be discussing global politics in Vietnamese, so don’t worry if you still talk like a 10-year-old after months of study. (Hey, think it’s great when people tell me I talk like a 10-year-old.) If your goal is to be able to say hi, ask directions and order a beer, then feel good about being able to do that. Remember, no one expects you to speak Vietnamese, so the bar is pretty low. Celebrate your progress; don’t worry about what you still don’t know.
If you’re interested in seeing a real-live foreigner speaking Vietnamese, why not go on a food tour? I know lots of good spots all over Da Nang. I’ll order the food, and you get to eat it! I’ll even show you how to navigate the menu.