By Antonio Graceffo
Having my fellow students ask me to leave the class was like being voted off the island.
In November 2010, I began an intensive Vietnamese course, at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The course consisted of a series of eight-week courses. Each week we attended 20 hours of classes. Each eight weeks we sit an exam and decide whether or not to continue onto the next course.
Apart from wanting to learn Vietnamese both well and quickly, I chose the intensive course because I was hoping to be in a room full of like-minded people, serious about learning. I chose the university over a language school for two reasons. First, because I would have the option of transitioning into a Master’s Degree program in Vietnamese language and culture. The other reason was that I hoped to meet people who were serious linguists or polyglots who would enjoy intellectual discussion both theoretical and practical. I imagined we would talk about the history of the Vietnamese language, or do comparisons to Chinese, Korean or other Asian languages.
Group courses are not bad when you first start studying because it’s cheap and they tend to go step-by-step. If you are really serious about the language, however, you will eventually need to transition into private lessons at the university. In private lessons you get more talk time and of course you eliminate the hours spent listening to the faulty pronunciation and linguistic difficulties of your classmates. And you are saving them from picking up your bad habits as well.
Materials and methodologies
In the intensive course, our primary, and only the textbook is, “Giao trinh Tieng Viet, Cho Nguoi Nuoc Ngoai,” by Nguyen Van Hue. Parallel to the course I began working through a series of textbooks produced by the university in Hanoi: “Thuc Hanh Tieng Viet” from Dai Hoc Quoc Gia Ha Noi. There are five books in the series. I also picked up a series of books from Victoria University in Australia: “Tenh Viet: Vietnamese for beginners” by Buu Khai and Phan Van Giuong. There are four books in the series.
For listening and oral drilling, I use the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Basic Vietnamese Course. I also hired a tutor and attend one-on-one tutorials several days per week.
All together, I spend between 50 and 60 hours per week on Vietnamese. When I first started the course, I had already had 150 hours of private tutorials, but I hadn’t learned to write Vietnamese or to pronounce it properly. Without being able to write or to pronounce Vietnamese, I obviously couldn’t pass a placement exam. So, I had to start with level one at the university.
While I probably needed to start in level one, I suspected that at some point during the course, I would make a major breakthrough in my pronunciation and writing and suddenly find myself way ahead of my classmates. While I was waiting for this leap ahead, I was putting in my fifty or sixty hours per week of learning. Long story short, by the second week of the second eight-week term, my level was so far ahead of my classmates that it was becoming impossible for us to remain in the same class. Where I was able to write essays and hold a conversation, most were happy if they could string a half sentence together.
I didn’t want to jump to level three without first completing level two. So, asking to be bumped up a level was not going to work. The only option open to me was to move into private, one-on-one lessons with a professor. At this rate, I should be able to jump up a level every 4 or 5 weeks, rather than every eight.
Getting back to my original assumptions about the intensive program; meeting people who were serious about Vietnamese and meeting people who were academics, polyglots or linguists. First, none of my classmates, nor anyone I met in the neighboring classes were academics. In my class, four of the twelve students speak Japanese as a second language, well enough to have normal conversations and talk all day. So, that was a plus. But none seemed to be academically interested in languages or linguistics. And none were doing research or publishing. None had a degree in linguistics or similar field.
They were all learning Vietnamese for the very practical purpose of working in Vietnam, but none of them were putting in any significant effort apart from attending class. Most of them, at one time or another, had asked my advice on what they could do to learn better and faster. When I suggested they should study more outside of class, many of them said they didn’t have time. Our class is only four hours per day. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Couldn’t they just go home after class, take a long rest, say two or three hours, then put in another two hours of self-study or tutor time?
When I was doing my BA I was in an honors comparative linguistics course, which was by invitation only. Every student in the course had a nearly perfect grade point average. The average age was 29 years old, as opposed to the average age of 20 or so in the university at large. The professor told us that adult students generally scored better than young kids did. He also said that adults, working full time jobs, never used their job as an excuse for not doing homework or studying. But young people, working part time always identified the 18 hours per week they slung pizzas as the reason they couldn’t study.
I felt that way in my class in Vietnam. I was the only one working full time, but I was also doing the most study.
One of my classmates was an American guy, call him Rico, who said his mission in life was to “pleasure women.” He had spent ten years in Japan, pleasuring women. Then, he tried China for a year, but hated it. Finally, he came to Vietnam. His next stops, several months from now will be Bali, followed by Brazil, each for a period of months. He said he has no plans of ever working again, only, following his primary mandate of pleasuring women. While I found him to be reprehensible, I include Rico in this report as part of a cautionary tale of how not to learn a language.
Rico spoke Japanese well, but didn’t do any studying or homework outside of class for Vietnamese. He talked about getting tutors, but all of his tutors were girls, who he was interested in for dating, and who he wasn’t paying. They would allegedly meet for language exchange, afterwards, he would complain that he wasn’t learning.
I have always been very much against language exchange. Even in the best of circumstances, language exchange simply doesn’t work. Rather than saying, “I’ll teach you English for an hour and you teach me Vietnamese for an hour,” instead, I just say, “I’ll pay you for two hours of Vietnamese lessons.” In that way, I progress and I learn. The tutors are always on time, and they teach me what I need or want to know. With language exchange, as Rico often complained, the partners generally wanted to practice English, but had no interest in teaching Vietnamese. They often turned up late or not at all. From a strictly dollars and cents perspective, an hour of English lessons is worth over $20 in Vietnam. An hour of Vietnamese is worth $2.50. So, it makes more sense to work as a paid English teacher, and use the money to pay for Vietnamese tutors. One hour of English teaching earns you about seven hours of Vietnamese lessons.
Rico complained that during the Vietnamese hour, the tutors would still speak English. “I try and force them to speak Vietnamese, but I just don’t have enough Vietnamese to hold a conversation. So my options were, send them away, or sit there and listen to them speak English.”
Rico’s point was valid. When you are first learning a language you can’t hold real conversations. That’s why it makes more sense to have a textbook as the focal point of your tutor sessions. Then, slowly, as the spirit takes you, veer away from the book, and engage in longer and longer asides, mini-conversations, at your level, but always returning to the book.
Rico told me that he was interviewing a prospective tutor and explained to her that she would need to talk to him for an hour in Vietnamese. She asked, “What would we talk about?” Rico answered, “You could ask me what’s this? What’s that? Do you like this or that?” Apparently the girl said, “That sounds boring.” And she refused to meet him.
Rico’s experience, minus the international, jet-set woman-pleasuring business, seems to support my theory that if your level is too low, conversation is beyond you. In the beginning, you could benefit from a more structured practice.
Along the same lines, David Long, the director of the ALG program in Thailand said: Rather than doing an hour of conversation that you don’t understand, it would make more sense to do fifteen minutes of something at your level.
Another of my classmates is Nu Sun, a Chinese native speaker, fluent in English, was having particular problems with the course. She must have asked me fifty times what it was I was doing that helped me learn so quickly. Each time, I outlined my program for her. I expected her to say that she would at least purchase one of the books I recommended or start working with the FSI course. Instead, she always concluded these discussions with, “Couldn’t I just sit in a café and try and have real conversations with Vietnamese people? That’s good too, isn’t it?”
“Is that what you are doing now?” I asked.
“Yes.” She answered.
“You see how well it’s working out for you.” I pointed out. But of course, when people ask advice, what they really want you to do is agree with what they are already doing.
Several of the students suggested practicing Vietnamese by talking to each other. I thought this strategy was doomed because then we would just be reinforcing each other’s bad habits. Nu Sun, in particular, insisted on talking to me in Vietnamese, although neither she nor I understood a word of what she was trying to say.
My attitude toward speaking to foreigners in Vietnamese did change a bit in the second semester, however. My best friend in class was CK a Chinese native speaker who didn’t know a word of English. We always spoke to each other in Chinese, but as the course went on, he made more of an effort to speak Vietnamese to me. He truly needed Vietnamese for communication. Without it, he couldn’t even talk to the other students, let alone the Vietnamese people who make up the majority of Vietnam. Little by little, I began answering him in Vietnamese, to help him progress. This made it more natural for him to transition into talking to the other students as well.
Around the same time, we received a new student in our course, a young Japanese guy who was like a breath of fresh air. Hiro was motivated about learning and extremely excited about his life in Vietnam. He didn’t have a tutor but he did have a Vietnamese girlfriend and spoke mostly Vietnamese to her. With CK now speaking Vietnamese and Hiro speaking Vietnamese, we all began using Vietnamese for communication. At times we would just break down laughing because, while we were trying to have deep and meaningful conversations with each other, Vietnamese people on the streets didn’t understand anything we said to them.
By the mid-point of the second semester CK was one of the better students in the class. Part of the reason, I have to believe, was because he was forced to do tons of homework. He couldn’t just ask the teacher for an explanation or translation in Chinese. He didn’t even recognize international words like “film or video.” Every word written on the board, in English or Vietnamese, he had to look up in a dictionary at night.
On a linguistic side note: when we first started, I had to point out all of the Chinese cognates to CK. He simply didn’t see them. By the middle of the second term, he was catching Chinese cognates at least two or three times better than me. I am curious to see how well he will be speaking a year from now.
One of the Korean guys, call him Il, would just say “pass” every time the teacher called on him. He more or less refused to speak Vietnamese or to participate in class activities. Needless to say, he was easily the worst in the class. Some students tried to defend Il, saying, “He just has a different learning style.” Perhaps, but it was clearly a style that was resulting in him not learning.
A point I would like to make here is I don’t subscribe to the theory that there are different learning styles. All human beings learn all things through repetition. Without repetition you simply don’t learn. And all things take time to learn. The more time you invest practicing, rehearsing, studying, learning, the more you will learn. When you are in class, you need to be engaged. Answer and ask questions, tune in. outside of class you need to do homework, revision, and preparation.
Some people think answering up in class is a way of showing off. But the student who answers up is usually the one who is learning and doing well. It is rare to find a student who doesn’t participate, but who is still learning and actually knows the answers.
An intensive course of any kind can be an emotional experience. But a language course is even more extreme. In a language course, chemical and perhaps even physical changes are occurring in your brain. You are cooped up in a classroom, twenty hours per week, not always understanding what is going on. And when you speak or write, you have to lower your intellect to the mind of a seven year old, to be able to express yourself with the limited language that you have.
When you started the course, you were intelligent. Now, you’re an idiot. It’s enough to discourage anyone from learning. All of my classmates, myself included, experienced minor episodes of break down. There are times when I get irritable or aggressive. There are times when otherwise good students suddenly can’t answer even the most basic question in their native tongue, let alone in the foreign language.
You run the gamut of emotions, and it is all normal. There are also moments, even whole weeks when you feel that you will never make it up that hill. Learning a new language is like climbing Mount Everest when the tide is coming in. Every time, your Sherpas get a few meters up the mountain, the waves come in and knock down your sand castle. Ok, maybe that’s a mixed-up metaphor, but you get the picture. Learning a new language is hard. And when students have trouble learning, they look for someone or something to blame.
People crazy enough to study in an intensive language program are still people. This often means that they look for anything or anyone to blame, rather than blame themselves for not putting in the hours.
I met an older, married couple who had dropped out of the program before I started. The wife told me. “We hired a tutor to help us find a better book, because the book for the intensive course is not very well organized.”
Yeah, it was the organization of the book that prevented them from learning. A book which teaches “What time is it?” before the chapter on “What’s your job” is clearly the answer to their problems. They had dropped out of the program almost a year earlier but hadn’t even started their private lessons yet, because they were waiting to find a book which was “A little better organized.”
The first person Rico blamed was one of our teachers. We had two female teachers who we all liked and two male teachers who we hated. Rico went to the office and found out that if we all signed a form, which he picked up, the teacher we hated would be removed. It was a coin toss as to which of the two male teachers we wanted removed. We didn’t realize at the time, but they were a set. When we got rid of one, we got rid of both. The two replacements were both excellent.
Rico felt like a hero. And on some level, he was. But, deep down I kept thinking, it is a little ballsy to get the teacher fired. While I agreed, it made me a little uneasy that he could be that calculating and devious.
Once we got the new teachers, and Rico found he still wasn’t learning, he decided that I was holding him back. “You dominate the class, answering 50% of the questions.” He said. I agree. I was dominating the class. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. BUT, if I was answering 50% that left the other 50% up for grabs and Rico was answering 0%. In fact, he even passed on writing the end of term exam.
I knew I had to leave the class soon anyway. So, when he confronted me, I decided God had spoken and was telling me, “Yes, it is time for you to move on and take private lessons.”
I keep having fantasies of confronting Rico a few months from now, saying, “I guess with me gone, your Vietnamese is spot-on now.” He would most likely respond, “It would be, but you held me back for so long, I couldn’t catch up.”
Have you ever dreamed of mastering a foreign language? Do you live in a foreign country but can’t speak the language as well as your native tongue? What’s holding you back? I feel at least partly responsible.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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