Accepting defeat graciously

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Japanese and Thai students study Vietnamese at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, where many foreigners take language classes

When I moved to Vietnam in 2004 to live out my retirement years, I was 69 years old. Among my expectations was that over time I would become able to speak and listen to enough of the Vietnamese language to be able to navigate the culture. Now at the ripe(er) old age of 77, I am admitting defeat.

The language and its speakers has bested me by half. The number of words and phrases I can use or understand is miniscule. It is one of the great regrets of my life. Over the years I have observed a few of my expat friends develop varying levels of competence and others stumble along at my level. To those succeeding, a tip of the hat and a "Well done." To the rest of us, we have been beaten by a tough foe.

In the beginning, I made the easy and common mistake of assuming that if I came close, I would make myself understood. My idea was that as strange to my ear as Vietnamese is, there might be things that sounded like words in English. This works to varying degrees with common European languages. My first effort was "you are welcome" "Không có gì." It sounded when spoken, like "cup of tea" (with a twist of Vietnamese lemon). When responding to "cám ơn" (thank you) I would reply with my Vietnamised version of "cup of tea" and usually get a nod of approval. Obviously I was on the right track. Wrong! It did not take long to learn that people were just being polite.

As I met more Vietnamese people who spoke English
they tried to help me understand the importance of EXACT pronunciation if you wish to be understood by pointing out some examples. Mười"¦ten, muá»—i"¦mosquito, mũi"¦nose (sounds the same to my ear), muối"¦salt, má»›i"¦new (also sounds the same) so by saying, roughly something like "Muy muy muy muy muy" with a very, very slight change in pitch on each word, you have said, "Ten new salted mosquito noses" just in case you wanted to order that delicacy at a nearby vendor.

As if that was not enough they also would throw in the five meanings of "ba" with appropriate marks. As is common with English, two meanings look and sound the same, Madam or Grandmother and Dad or Three, depending on the sentence and its context. One meaning of "ba" is, according to my wife, "garbage" (bã). I could not come up with a sentence with these because when I tried to say, "Grandmother, madam and dad, would one of the three of you take out the garbage," my wife told me that did not actually mean garbage in that context but was referring to the skins and pulp she discards when she squeezes juice.

One thing that is clear from my observations is that an accent in the speaking of one's own tongue is not necessarily a serious problem in learning Vietnamese. I have friends from French-speaking Canada, Australia and even Brooklyn who are doing nicely. I am told that my pronunciation when I first hear something is excellent. My problem is that my poor old head seems to allow two or three things to run out every time I try to get one new thing to stay in. At this rate I will probably be comatose by 2016, drained of all knowledge and memory, including my very excellent knowledge of English.

At this late point in my life my biggest regret, aside from not buying Apple stock and holding it when it was US$20 a share, is not being able to acquire sufficient skill in Vietnamese to increase my participation in the culture. As rich and wonderful as my life has been here, it would be far better with the use of the language that my few friends, who are fluent, enjoy. How I envy them!

My alternative, in the face of this shortcoming, has been to teach English, gratis, to as many people as I can. So for the past eight years, I have had the pleasure of working and becoming good friends with several hundred Vietnamese of varying ages, who have come to my home five mornings a week to work on their English. In this fashion I have been able to still enjoy the company of Vietnamese friends and discuss the culture even if they have had to learn my language with which to do it. I only have a few million yet to reach!

By Bob Michaels
The writer is an American expat who lives in the south-central province of Binh Thuan

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