Vs. Chatting in Bars
By Antonio Graceffo
I was sitting in a café in Saigon with a Khmer friend. The waitress came over, and I began speaking to her in Vietnamese. She looked right past me, as if I didn’t exist, and spoke to my Khmer friend in Vietnamese. This scene has been repeated, over and over and is something I have had to struggle with during all of my years in Asia, and all of my languages. They just put me on the “Pay-No-Mind” list.”
But somehow, they never look right past the white guy, when the bill comes.
I interrupted, and told the waitress that my friend doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but I do, so she would need to speak to me. She just nodded and kept talking to my friend. I interrupted again, and repeated that my friend doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but she continued talking to him, although he didn’t understand. Finally, in spite of my rising anger, and in spite of the language and cultural barrier, I managed to order our food. The waitress walked away, but I decided I wasn’t done with her. I called her back to the table and asked her, rather sternly, in Vietnamese.
“I told you twice my friend can’t speak Vietnamese, but I do. But you kept talking to him in Vietnamese. Why? And why wouldn’t you talk to me?”
She looked slightly confused. She took out her order pad and a pen and asked, in English, “You want the Vietnamese cheesecake?”
This café didn’t even sell Vietnamese cheese cake.
I am at a point now that I can read, write and translate at a relatively high level in Vietnamese. I read long, complicated texts with my teachers, and then discuss them, in Vietnamese. Today, we had a text about the history of transportation. I learned the words for: prehistoric, combustion engine, breaking the sound barrier, about eight words for transportation, five for ship, what’s more, I can express useful concepts like “Prehistoric man dragged objects from place to place on animal hides.”
But I still can’t order off a menu.
Part of me is frustrated and wants to hit something with a cinderblock. Part of me knows that it’s irrelevant if I talk to people or not. If you don’t know the words, you can’t say them. The longer I study in the books, the more grammar and vocabulary I will have for speaking when that happens.
Chatting in a bar, I probably wouldn’t have learned the words for “prehistoric” and “breaking” the sound barrier. Maybe I would still have learned the part about “dragging things on animal skins,” but that’s debatable.
This evening, I was in the staff room at the school where I teach, working on a difficult translation. A Vietnamese woman who teaches English said, “You study so hard Vietnamese.” Of course she said it in English. So, I answered in Vietnamese, “The reading and writing are easy but pronunciation is difficult. Vietnamese people don’t understand me when I speak.”
When I finished, she said in English, “Maybe it’s because of the tones.”
Maybe it is. But it’s also because Vietnamese people absolutely refuse to speak Vietnamese with us. How are we ever to practice?
Trying to put a positive spin on things, I look at the complete refusal of Vietnamese people to meet us half way, as an imposed silent period. With children learning their first language, and with anyone studying Thai through ALG method, there is a silent period of months or even years, where you just listen and learn, but don’t speak. So, I’m in my silent period in Vietnamese.
Most linguists agree that a longer silent period doesn’t hurt your language development. A student who starts speaking after a month and one who starts speaking after eight months may be at the same level of speaking after one year.
The other reason why I am not pushing myself too much to talk to people is that I truly utilize every waking minute to study. Chit chatting would cut into my study time.
Studying to a high level, the probability is that you could, at some point, learn to speak at the same level. But if you have good speaking and communication skills, but don’t study, you will never reach academic fluency.
My goal in learning Vietnamese is to eventually pass a translation exam. My secondary goal is to reach academic fluency, to be able to read, write and speak at native speaker level, appropriate for my age and level education.
This may sound like big talk from someone who accidentally orders Vietnamese cheese cake. The nice thing about having a lofty goal is that if you only get half way there, you’re still doing pretty well.
During the Tet Holiday, when school and nearly all businesses were closed for two weeks, I stayed in and worked diligently on my studies. I did translation exercises, listening, oral drilling, grammar, and vocabulary. I also squeezed in as many tutorials as could, when my tutors weren’t busy celebrating the holiday with their family.
In the two weeks, working up to fourteen hours per day, I jumped up two full levels in my academic studies. Now, I am pushing to do the final exam for level five, the highest level currently available at the university, in about four months time, rather than two years, which is what the program calls for.
Am I frustrated that I can’t talk to anyone outside of my classroom? Yes, of course. But at the end of the day, I must convince myself that it just doesn’t matter. It will come later. And I’ll be speaking at a higher level because my academic level will be higher.
A number of people who read my articles about the difficulties I have encountered in studying Vietnamese have written in with the same advice: “You should hang out with native speakers.” Believe it or not, living in Vietnam, it has occurred to me that talking to native speakers might be a good way to practice Vietnamese. But Vietnam is by far the most hostile learning environment that I have ever encountered. No one is willing to understand you when you speak. And, as I said above, I am really focused on finishing this academic program.
Here’s an email I received today from a stranger. I’m fairly certain he’s an overseas Vietnamese. But this is the typical advice I get from people.
“I suggest you hang out more w/ Viet kieu, or Vietnamese Americans who came back to Vietnam, they should have a pretty decent understanding of both languages and therefore can translate the language in a way that actually made sense to you in English. Plus, go sing karaoke w/ the locals, in Viet of course. U’ll get more exposure to the language that u don’t get from the course.”
My response: “That’s preposterous advice. I don’t need anyone to translate for me. How would I learn if people were translating for me? Next, I need to learn advanced vocabulary and grammar necessary to pass a translation exam. That will never happen from “hanging out” with people or singing karaoke. Most overseas Vietnamese can’t read at the level I can now. And they certainly won’t be able to read at the level I will a few months from now. Yesterday, I did a translation about the economic crisis in Australia. It took me eight hours. Do you honestly believe I would have just absorbed that much language by “hanging out” with people or singing karaoke?
My next set of translations is about immigration policy. Which karaoke songs would you suggest I sing in order to understand those texts?”
I sought out and purchased as many Vietnamese textbooks as I could, and will probably finish all of them in a few weeks. Then I’ll move on to working with Wikipedia Vietnam. This way I can read interesting articles, which I enjoy, and which I am already familiar with in English. By reading a variety of articles, I can learn a wide-breadth of vocabulary. I will have my teachers read them in advance. Then we can discuss them and translate them together. I ‘m also writing essays several times per week, which forces me to produce language.
Currently, I am looking on the internet for Vietnamese language videos which may parallel local newspapers or articles that I can find in print form. That way, I can work with written texts, as well as native speaker-level original language videos, such as news reports and talk shows. Living in Vietnam, obviously, I can use the TV for listening practice, but the internet is better, because I can watch the same video over and over again, until I get it. My listening is not yet ready to just tune into the TV news. It would sound like white noise to me. Another idea I had was to do long-distance lessons with one of my favorite teachers in Hanoi. I can email him the links for the videos, then we can skype and discuss them. I could even write essays, based on the videos, and email them to him.
Yes, you need speaking practice, but it can come in the middle or at the end of your studies and you’ll still learn. Speaking with people is a way of activating your language. But the longer you study before you start speaking, the more language you’ll have to activate.
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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