A couple of months ago, I finally broke down and hired a Vietnamese tutor.
This had come after nearly two-and-a-half years of trying to self-study the language, with some success. In that time I was able to cinch much of the alphabet and pronunciation, which, to say the least, are rather daunting to most learners. I had also picked up bits of vocabulary here and there, writing them down in my notebook with the cute little cartoon pig on the cover. But this was all on-and-off. I would become studious and motivated for a few weeks until one of my other rotating hobbies inevitably eclipsed it.
After looking back at my lack of progress toward even becoming conversational in Vietnamese, I told myself that at some point, I would have to get a tutor to keep me on track. And since I felt like this was something I would always say to myself but never actually do, one day I just decided to do it. I looked online and found what seemed to be respectable company.
This is why every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I now sit at a café table across from a young gal with long hair and keen, bespectacled eyes who speaks to me in sentences I only half-understand. This is Cô (Teacher) Khuê. First it was Cô Thùy, but then she had business she had to take care of in her hometown, so now it’s Khuê. She has a rather whimsical air about her and always comments on how good my pronunciation is.
Many of my Vietnamese friends also say this to me, which only inflates the ego ever so slightly.
I think I have an advantage in that I’ve always been fascinated by the pronunciations of other tongues. During French class in high school, I did try hard to imitate all those unique nasal sounds that are a hallmark of the language. When I studied Mandarin in university, I felt like I tried to outdo some of my classmates in nailing down it’s peculiar sounds and vocal nuances. Even with all the other languages I’ve informally (and briefly) studied in the past, their pronunciations were what mostly attracted me. “How do they make those sounds?” I always wondered, before playing with my mouth to approximate them.
The thing that particularly bothers me is that I’m still not fluent in anything other than English. Not that there’s much surprise in that; I grew up speaking what happened to be the modern world’s lingua franca, and it’s been enough for me throughout my globetrotting. I’ve never lived in any French-speaking countries, or China, so those linguistic possibilities have faded into dormancy. Yet I feel like I’m missing out on something. We writers pride ourselves in going far and wide to listen to or read about new stories and ideas, and monolingualism hampers that ideal (especially when you live in a foreign country for a long period of time).
There’s something else, too. I call it the “double mind” – being able to perceive the world through two (or more) linguistic frameworks. Anyone who studies a foreign language realizes sooner or later how an idea can be conceptualized differently, depending on what language it’s processed through. Which is so tantalizing to me: the ability to flip between different mindsets, seeing anything from multiple angles.
Just a small example: The Vietnamese word for “crocodile” is “cá sâu,” where “cá” is a classifier word that denotes a type of fish. So, as far as the language is concerned, crocodiles are more akin to fish than anything else. (Also, “shark” is “cá mâp,” where “mâp” means “fat.”)
Or another: Vietnamese grammar always uses the passive voice to describe good or bad things that happen to people. So while this would translate into some sentences that are more familiar to English-speaking ears (“A gift was given to me.”), others would sound quite unique (“A sickness happened to me.”; “A fight happened to me.”).
One thing I’ve realized so far is how stupid my students must feel sometimes, knowing the exact thing they want to say in their mother tongue but lacking the vocabulary to express it to me in English. Perhaps humility is the first lesson taught to all serious language learners.
I have a vision that helps motivate me. One where I’m able to go out into the field and deftly use the language to talk to anyone, listen to their stories and write them down for you and the world to see. It’s just a vision.
But in the meantime, I’m simply enjoying myself by slowly uncovering the hidden fruits this language has to offer. One of them came up about a month ago with my tutor, when I chanced upon the topic of slums in Saigon, the main city in the south of Vietnam.
That day I learned that Vietnamese uses the phrase “khu ô chuôt” to describe a slum. Literally translated: “rat’s nest.”
Email Andrew at  tct@pageone-inc.com.