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Day 71 – tiếng Việt

May 13, 2010

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Thursday, May 13, 2010

I’ve always said food and language are the two quickest ways to integrate yourself into a culture. If you can explain yourself to someone, ask about their family, talk about the local football team, you’re well on your way to a better relationship.

If you can’t do that, find a favorite dish that the locals know most Westerners can’t stomach, eat it in front of them, then declare that you love it. In that case, a smile and a thumbs up can do the work of a thousand words.

Having taken this tenet fully to heart, it should be no surprise that I’ll eat just about anything a local is eating.

It should be even less of a surprise that I also try to get a grip on the local language, whether it’s Thai, Khmer (Cambodian), or the language of California’s Central Valley. In each I’ve managed to learn how to say: “Please,” “Thank you,” “How much?”, and how to count to 1,000. Well, that’s not totally accurate. Do people in the Central Valley know how to count to 1,000?

Each language has presented its own challenges. Thai has 50 tones, at least two of which I cannot differentiate. The writing for Thai and Khmer doesn’t look anything like English. I only spent three days in Malaysia. Khmer often uses a base five countng system.  That means to count to 10 you count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20.  If you thought math was tough, try doing it using a completely different number system.  20 + 20 still equals 40, but "40" in base five actually means "20" in base ten.  Anyone up for multiplication?  Point is, Khmer has its challenges even if it doesn’t have tones.

Vietnamese, however, has been a bit of an exception. It’s not easy—it’s tonal (six tones); the grammar is mixed up compared to English; there isn’t much past, future, and present tense—but there are at least a couple things that make it easier.

Most importantly: If you can read English you can read Vietnamese. Oh, the pronunciation is different and there are a few weird looking symbols tacked on the alphabet. That’s all true. But it doesn’t look like chicken scratches or like someone dropped a box of toothpicks on the ground and called it script. You might not get the pronunciation correct, but you can get close.

A Vietnamese “A” looks like an English “A”. The “ph” in Vietnamese makes the same sound as the “ph” in English. And all those little apostrophe, pointy hat, dot looking symbols? Those are actually helpful. Most of them tell you what tone to use with the letter.

I think of it like a drummer reading notes on a music sheet. As a drummer, when I look at my music sheet, all I see are symbols when to hit my drum. There aren’t any symbols that tell me to play a “C sharp” or an “A flat”, there’s just “hit” and “don’t hit.”

As an English reader (a drummer of the lingual world) I know how to read the rhythm and the cadence of Vietnamese script. Now I just need to figure out how to do what the Vietnamese readers (tonal linguists) do, which is also read when I need to say something higher, lower, rising then falling, or just falling. The little symbols that Vietnamese throw on their script are just there to help. It’s just another layer on top of something that I already know.

Being able to read is huge. It means that you can study on your own. You may have no idea what you’re looking at, but you can go to your Viet-to-English dictionary and pick out the word and learn the English definition. You can’t say the same for Khmer or Thai, which are beautiful written languages but are about as easy to read as professional poker player Phil Ivey’s face in a bank vault with the lights out and your thumbs jammed behind your eyes.

You can say the word out loud, stare at a visual representation, memorize what the word looks like, then mispronounce it later when you try to use it. The native speaker will look at you like you have an arm growing out of your forehead and you’ll have to repeat what you’ve said a few times using different tones and pronunciations, but in the end he’ll probably figure out what you’re saying. Most of the time he’ll even pronounce it back to you the way it’s supposed to sound. So long as you can stand his accompanying laughter, it works. If you can manage to laugh along, it works even better.

The point is, it’s a start. For someone like me, a visual learner, it’s a huge start. It also means that I’ve learned a lot more Vietnamese in the last two weeks than I have either Thai or Khmer.

I bring this up because today I spent a couple hours hanging out with the younger hotel staff working through some Vietnamese words. We all had phrasebooks out and were trying out words on each other. I’d trade them English words for Vietnamese words. We’d laugh at each other’s pronunciation and give corrections.

All in good fun.

The similarity in written language is a subtle, perhaps underestimated factor in the future of Vietnam’s growth. They’re a blossoming economy. Their population is mostly educated with a literacy rate of about 90%. Its people are looking for ways to connect themselves to the outside world’s economy and culture.

I think they have a leg up on much of Asia. We can’t just read their language; they can read ours. It’s a two-way street. Their ability to pick up English faster may be something that connects them to the outside world more quickly than other nations. The government certainly thinks so. It’s incorporated English language into the state curriculum.

If I were an oddsmaker, I’d definitely weigh the similarity in written language as a positive in favor of the Vietnamese. They can more easily access the most widely spoken language in the West and Westerners can delude themselves into thinking they’ll be able to get a grip on Vietnamese. If you’re willing to put up with the “communist” dictatorship, there’s a lot of money to be made here. Or at least some Westerners are going to think so.

Between this country’s history with the U.S., the friendly people, the relative ease with which one can learn the language, I feel like most Americans would feel more comfortable here than they might expect. Now, if only the Vietnamese would do something about a few of their foods. . .

GALLERY: No extra pics in today’s gallery. You’ll have to just live with the one.

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