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The problem with Vietnam is…

VIETNAM | Monday, 6 April 2009 | Views [572]

The problem with Vietnam is the Vietnamese, and no I don’t mean the people, I am referring to the language. Before I even set foot in Vietnam I had decided that it was of upmost importance that I, at least attempted, to learn the local language. I was delighted when I heard that ILA (the school I work for) offered free Vietnamese lessons for it’s teaching staff. I immediately signed up and three weeks later instantaneously dropped out.

            I’m not a natural linguist, sometimes I question whether I can really speak English properly), but learning Vietnamese is presents and extra challenge as it’s a tonal language. There are five tones (six in the north of the country) which must be used correctly in conjunction with speech if you are to be understood. Use the wrong tone at your peril as what you are trying to say could end up meaning something completely different. I discovered this the hard way when I was informed that I had been calling one of my students “rape” for the entire lesson.

            My problem lies in the fact I cannot hear the difference between these tones, let alone produce them! In fact the only tone I seem capable of producing is a sort of nasal monotone, which comes out of my mouth every time I open it. I use this nasal monotone in all aspects of my life: I speak in nasal monotone, I sing in nasal monotone, I probably even dream in nasal monotone. Variation in tone is just beyond me.

            It does not help that every time I attempt to use my Vietnamese I am met by looks of complete and utter incomprehension. When I try to order in a restaurant the entire staff normally gathers around me in an attempt to understand what language it is that I am trying produce. When the penny finally drops that I am trying to speak Vietnamese their faces instantly break into a smile and sometimes even a laugh. They then correct my Vietnamese by producing the same sentence but this time with the correct tone. This would be helpful if I could hear any difference between what I was saying and what they are saying, but I can’t.

I have now restarted Vietnamese lessons and have somehow blundered my way through the first half of the course using only nasal monotone - I may be winning the battle but I’m losing the tonal war.  

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