The author (sitting, R) and his competitors in a classroom at Truong Dai Hoc Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi va Nhan Van, which translates as ‘The Hardest Name for Foreigners to Remember and Pronounce’
I have no mortal rival in mispronouncing Vietnam’s romanized alphabet, not to mention its six tones.
The written language is based on the sounds of 16th century Portuguese, which allows me to vaguely recognize and fantastically screw up everything.
Overall, I’m fairly certain that no one is better at misinterpreting Vietnamese than I am.
I am the best.
But I did not come to this fantastical ability by myself. I have been studying Vietnamese, every morning, for three and a half months. It took hours of written and spoken instruction, half a dozen vinylbound notebooks, and a really nice pencil to get where I am today.
And flashcards. My God, let us not forget all the misspelled flashcards!
Some of you may be asking why.
Living in a country where everyone wants to speak English can be daunting, even exhausting. Most people understand you or, even if they do not, at least try to.
Some of you are probably drafting letters to this newspaper right now, trying to come up with some complaints about how people in Vietnam do not speak English as well as people in Thailand or Singapore or London.
Gee whiz, I know how you feel.
After two years of living in Vietnam, I got so fed up with conducting all of my business and personal interactions in English that I decided to give up and learn Vietnamese.
So, I paid my US$227 signed up for classes at Trường Ðại học Khoa học Xã hội và Nhân văn. The school’s name translates to “The Hardest Name for Foreigners to Remember and Pronounce.”
The school has provided Vietnameselanguage classes to nguời nước ngoài (People water outside) since Portuguese people were sailing around the world, writing dictionaries for other countries.
(I apologize for any correctly spelled Vietnamese words in this piece and assure you that someone else is responsible for their correctness).
Choosing my course was not easy. In the end, I settled on8 a.m. classes to ensure that I would be optimally drowsy, frequently late or sometimes not present at all for my instruction.
My classmates (or as I like to think of them, my competition) included a Japanese housewife, two permanently hungover Korean college students, a retired husband and wife from Busan.
Though all lessons are taught in English, the only other fluent speaker was a DutchChinese businessman who studied Mandarin in the evenings.
I ruled the class for a solid week. It was, without a doubt, the most wonderful week of my life. But, once the curriculum moved beyond saying “thank you” and ordering coffee, I began to lose my edge.
By week two, everyone had charged past me like a pack of studious cheetahs.
Somehow they remembered things!
Determined to win Vietnamese class, I sought out the help of a tutor.
Native English speakers generally charge $20 per hour for private instruction (e.g. talking) and I worried about the potential cost of a qualified tutor.
But I quickly found out that all I had to do was accost students in the openair study hall at The Hardest Name for Foreigners to Remember and Pronounce for free help.
The entire student body appears to have taken a didactic oath that compels them to spend as much of their lives listening to foreigners mangle their language as circumstances require. This oath contains a clause prohibiting them from displaying any signs of frustration, even when said foreigners are aggressively trying to convince them that the whole country is mispronouncing the letter “p.”
In the end, I settled on a tutor from the center of the country to ensure that I would not be understood in any of the major cities.
Every day, we work hard to make sure I remain the worst Vietnamese student The Hardest Name for Foreigners to Remember and Pronounce has ever had.
I begin each session by mispronouncing the entire alphabet from start to finish.
Afterwards, my tutor reads passages aloud, which I then misspell. We keep drilling each misspelled words to find out how many different times I can get it wrong.
I am proud to say that I have never correctly spelled a word upon hearing it—not once.
My tutor believes that, if I keep up the hard work, I should be totally incomprehensible in six months. I am hoping that, one day soon, I will make no sense a tall and the nation will embrace me as some sort of brilliant poet.
Until that day comes, here is to your health, or “chúp sử quêy”...
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