I always knew that one of the most difficult parts about moving to Vietnam, would be the dreaded “language barrier”. English is not widely spoken here in Vietnam, and Vietnamese is considered one of the more difficult languages for English speakers to learn. All challenges aside, I was determined to try my best to learn the language of my new home.
Why is Vietnamese so difficult? For starters, it is tonal. I have tried to explain this concept to my friends and family back in the US and Israel, but most don’t seem to grasp it. Basically, I can say the same “word” with 6 different tones and that would actually create 6 different words. Westerners often have a lot of trouble with this, which can lead to some very funny communication breakdowns. In Hanoi, the words for pineapple. watermelon, and coconut are spelled the same, but have different tones. I have yet to meet the foreigner in Hanoi that has not had the experience at least once of ordering a pineapple smoothie, and receiving a coconut smoothie instead (or vice-versa). There is also a common mistake between the Vietnamese word for grapefruit and the word for a certain part of the male anatomy, but I have never heard of this leading to an order mix up in a restaurant.
The other really difficult thing about Vietnamese is the pronoun system. Off the top of my head, I can think of 25 different pronouns, but there are more. They change based on age, age difference, social situation, age difference of parents, type of relationship, gender, closeness, anger, etc. Trying to master the use of this complicated, yet culturally important pronoun system, is quite mind boggling.
To being with, I signed up for classes at the National University, here in Hanoi. While these classes were extremely helpful, anyone that has ever tried to learn a new language will tell you, you can’t learn it in a classroom. You must “live the language” and talk with native speakers. There are the usual tricks of trying to talk with taxi driver and waiters. But that too was not enough.
Anyone that knows anything about gay subculture, knows that there are tons of apps and websites designed to help people meet, date, or whatever else they are looking for. The same is true here in Vietnam. I used apps like Grindr and Jack’d, along with Facebook groups for gay Vietnamese, to help meet local people. Some nights, I would spend hours chatting with guys from all over Vietnam. I was able to learn phrasing, syntax and all in all improve my conversation skills.
When I was still new at Vietnamese, it was always easier chatting online, because I could use Google translate for words I did not understand or could not remember. But, when I started meeting people in person, this was not always easy. Of course I have Google translate on my phone, but constantly looking up words on your phone, ruins the conversation. So I tried to keep the use of the translation apps to a minimum. We would rely on the good old classic options, like body language, pointing and describing. It wasn’t always easy, but I was definitely living the language, and that is the quickest and best way to master it.
Now, two and a half years later, I find myself frequently being complimented for my Vietnamese skills. I have many local friends who do not speak any English. In fact, my recent boyfriend of eight months does not speak English. We communicated solely in Vietnamese.
Of course I still have much to learn. I have continued my classes and am always looking to meet new people. And since I have met guys from all over the country, I have been able to learn to understand (somewhat) some of the different regional dialects, and have had many local guides for my travels around the country. But those are stories for another post.