For expats in Vietnam immersion is the best way to learn Vietnamese
Vincent Milliot was late, again.
"He spent at least 15 minutes trying to tell the taxi driver where to meet us," complained his friend, Frank Picatto. "Finally the guy got it."
Picatto didn't understand what took so long. The fact is, his pal Milliot, a French diplomat, was practicing his Vietnamese.
Like many other expats who have just arrived in Vietnam, Milliot took every opportunity to try his hand at the language.
He is not alone.
Four expats told Thanh Nien that when they first arrived, they took language lessons at least two times per week (the price of a private lesson ranges from US$5 to $15) and sought to practice Vietnamese everywhere with everyone. But in many cases, this "fever" doesn't last forever.
In fact, there are many expats who live in Vietnam without speaking Vietnamese.
"I think if an expat works in Vietnam for more than two years they have to study Vietnamese seriously," said Alberto Fabeiro Linares, trade adviser of Spanish economic and commercial office in HCMC, Embassy of Spain. "My contract to work in HCMC is nine months, and at first I [studied] Vietnamese at university. Then when I tried to speak Vietnamese with people like taxi drivers, I suddenly felt like people do not understand. "English" they asked so I started speaking in English,"
Last week, Linares and his friends gathered in his apartment to watch their home team battle the Portuguese. A note pad on the door offered pointers on how to buy fruit and ask for directions. The sign offers the only trace of that initial enthusiasm to learn Vietnamese.
Alberto's colleague, Joan Navarro, IT manager of Spanish Economic & Commercial office in HCMC agreed with him. "I studied Vietnamese for the first three months during my nine months in Vietnam. I find it is very difficult to study. I could always speak English with my friends. Now I only use Vietnamese to order food, ask for directions, and deal with money. If I lived in Vietnam for two years I would learn more."
Joan Navarro said that he travelled from HCMC to Hanoi on train, bus, and motorbike. "These were moments that I really wished I could speak Vietnamese more than ever. During the trips to small villages, I enjoyed discovering the place but I could not speak to the people there."
As a language with six distinct tones, Vietnamese can quickly discourage expats who work here for a short time. For those who live here for a long time, learning Vietnamese allows them to break into all aspects of Vietnamese society.
Sarah Johnson started working in HCMC two years ago as a journalist. "When I got to Vietnam, I was determined not to learn Vietnamese because at the beginning I planned to stay for just nine months," she said. "But then I changed my mind and I found out that learning Vietnamese would make life easier. For three months, I took private lessons with a tutor. Then as I made more friends I practiced Vietnamese with them and people on the street."
Jon Dillingham, an American editor also agreed with Sarah. For his first three years in Vietnam he kept picking up and dropping Vietnamese classes. At first, he felt very stupid for living here and not speaking the language. "You can speak English with middle and upper class people but there are so many more other people outside these classes," Dillingham said. "At first I learned on my own and I did not pay attention to the tones and that was stupid. After two months, my tones became better. I was lucky to have lots of encouragement from my friends."
Encouragement and help from friends are important contributing factors to learning Vietnamese. But, the main factor is you.
Chantelle Woodford is one of many expats who can speak Vietnamese quite well. When this young diplomat makes a speech in Vietnamese, she receives high praise from Vietnamese audiences.
Chantelle Woodford has been working as Vice Consul (trade, economic) to the Australian Consulate-General in HCMC for one and half years. It is her first overseas diplomatic post. She was so passionate about her job that, in her first year, she studied Vietnamese every day for three to four hours.
She says she now spends around one hour per week studying with her teacher. She makes a point of reading Vietnamese newspapers, listening the radio and watching Vietnamese TV. "Now that I can speak Vietnamese I understand people more and Vietnam is more accessible to me. I can integrate with people from all corners of life. I like to talk with children and people in the market and school."
Woodford says she is a long way away from fully understanding Vietnamese culture but speaking the language is an essential tool.