Speaking (y)our language

This is is my third time in Vietnam. Since October 2014 I have lived here for eight months all told.

Guess I am hooked on the place. But I really need to learn more Vietnamese to get the most out of living here. There’s so much that goes over your head when there is a language barrier to negotiate.

French colonial architecture in the Old Quarter of Ha Noi, Vietnam

French colonial architecture in the Old Quarter of Ha Noi

Sure, Google Translate helps to some extent. But in my experience it often serves to cause confusion rather than eliminate it.

My Vietnamese at the moment is fairly poor – ordering food and drink, chatting up women, and haggling with xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers about the fare. I seem to pick up bits and pieces of the language almost by osmosis. However, this is not an ideal way to learn any language, especially Vietnamese with its six tones that radically alter the meaning of any given word.

For a while there I reckoned I could get by with – xinh, đẹp, dễ thương, and thêm một, the Vietnamese for beautiful, pretty, cute and one more. Clearly, this wouldn’t work on a long term basis.

With a commitment to learn Vietnamese the received wisdom is that it takes two years to achieve fluency, possibly a bit sooner if you find yourself a local girlfriend.

At the moment I stumble by, recklessly mangling the language and being greeted with vacant stares or laughter, occasionally both. To Vietnamese ears I must sound like the policeman from that old UK sitcom Hallo, Hallo. He was a gendarme but in reality was a British spy who utterly mutiliated his French.

To get this idea across they had him speak English with a dodgy French accent and mispronounce every second or third word. Hence he would greet everyone by saying “Good moaning!”

At least I have ‘xin chao’ off pat…


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