Barbara Ximenez Bruidegom looks at the trials and tribulations of learning Vietnamese. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.
“You have a very smelly wife,”a young Korean student says to an American classmate twice his age. While the teacher in the corner can barely contain herself, the American seems confused rather than insulted, as he brings a notebook up to his nose. “My notebook smells?!?”
The teacher, crying with laughter, steps in and calls the attention back to the whiteboard. “Tones are important! Repeat after me: vợ,vở,vơ.” The class dutifully repeats, despite not hearing the slightest bit of difference between the three words, or understanding what exactly has made the teacher nearly wet herself. “Get the tones right or you will insult your friend’s wife, when really what you want to say is that he has smelly socks,” she finally explains, in between more giggling fits.
To a slightly less confrontational European like me, it was funny enough that the young Korean would point out the American’s smelly socks, but that was obviously not the point of the teacher’s anecdote. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth lesson in my beginners’ Vietnamese course, with my linguistic self-confidence already pretty much at rock bottom, she feels it is time for us to learn how sensitive these damn tones really are.
Four years later, my Vietnamese is decent enough, although tones are still a big old mystery to me. This comes as no surprise to my friends, who know I can’t even hold the melody of Happy Birthday, but it is somewhat of a handicap when trying to speak the lingo here. At first I likened it to a speech impediment, a bit like how I can’t roll my r’s in my own native Spanish. Unfortunately, struggling with the Vietnamese tones is much more than just a speech impediment, and it calls for a clear coping mechanism and a solid strategy for choosing the words that are least likely to get you in to trouble.
The first, and easiest, coping strategy is to always smile when you speak. Don’t just curl your lips, you need a real smile, one of those that involves your eyes as well. You might be about to insult someone’s ancestor, so putting your most disarming face forward goes a long way to avoiding a punch in the face.
Next, speak as complete a sentence as possible, and, whenever you can, try to finish up with one of the many sentence-ending words, like ạ, nhá, nhé, nhỉ, mà, luôn – preferably using the one that best describes your friendly intentions. The context that a full sentence provides, distracts from your bad pronunciation and makes it easier to understand what you are trying to say. The right sentence-ending word will momentarily confuse your audience, as for a split second you actually sound Vietnamese.
Thirdly, choose your vocab. The Vietnamese language has an extremely extensive vocabulary, and, for as long as your accent isn’t good enough to be singled out as a Southerner or Northerner, you may as well pick and choose the regional variation of a word that suits you best. For example, I use the Northern version of big — “to” — over the Southern word for it — “lơn”, for the same reason that I stopped ordering any drink in a can (“lon”) very early on. Get the pronunciation wrong for these two words, and your local friends will burst out laughing as you’ve ordered your beer from a woman’s genitalia. Even though I think I have got the hang of the difference between a can and a c**t by now, when it comes to ordering, it’s still a bottle (chai) of beer for me, just to be safe.
Similarly, I stopped asking to get my nails (móng) done, when I finally figured out why that request always came with lots of giggly taps on my buttocks (mông). Nowadays, I get in with the young Vietnamese and am all trendy, by simply using the word manicure within an otherwise Vietnamese sentence. And my better half has finally figured out why I can always get a laugh from the crowds when I introduce him as “James, but you can call him Jim”. If you’re not sure why, ask your Vietnamese friend or colleague, I’m sure you’ll get a giggle.
Most importantly though, as you try to get to grips with this language, don’t despair and don’t give up. It is a beautiful language, made for poetry and spoken by a quick-witted people with a sense of humour akin to the Brits: a little bit dark, a little bit sarcastic, and with a lot of deadpan delivery. Accept that it is a bit of a national sport to hear the worst in what you are saying, much like how the locals enjoy watching you eat durian or mắm tôm for the first time. Take it in the spirit that it is intended: a bit of good old banter between friends. My unintentional slip ups have forged enduring friendships and given me many moments filled with belly laughter to remember. And that’s all the reasons I need, to persist in learning this impossible tonal language.