Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Speaking Vietnamese in Chengdu: Vâng, Tôi Hiểu Một Chút Tiếng Việt

The odors of hotpots and Sichuan peppers float past me as the legs of my walking companion (one of my dogs!) struggle to keep my pace. I’m back in Chengdu, China.

It’s not Chinese nor Spanish but a new set of sounds that are passing between my eardrums. Dog at my side and headphones on, I am babbling the strange new tones, sounds and (hopefully!) words of my latest language: Vietnamese.

During my recent walks-abouts, my tongue has been tied up and my brain numbed by my efforts at “speaking” my next Asian language.

I’m going to Vietnam in about a couple weeks, so I’ve started learning Vietnamese. I’ll still be doing tech work while I travel and I haven’t given up on either Chinese or Spanish. But at the same time, I’m throwing myself into a new language challenge.

It’s doubtful how much I’ll need to know Vietnamese just to travel, but it’s part of how I approach travel. I travel slower so I can see and hear things differently. With my one-way tickets booked, bags never-quite-unpacked, and visa at the ready, I’m off to a new place to travel, experience and learn. So, as a good citizen of the world, I decided to start learning some Vietnamese before I leave.

It also gives me a chance to flesh out some of my principles and strategies for learning a foreign language, especially a language “beast” like the Austroasiatic language, Vietnamese.

Here are some thoughts on learning to traveling and traveling to learn as well as my first steps into learning Vietnamese.

Travel for Language, Language for Travel

For me, travel and language learning are pretty closely related. While I have traveled pretty extensively, I tend to travel mostly in places where I’ve learned or am learning the language. There are exceptions but generally I feel stronger ties through the travel of language than just travel alone.

Whether it’s speaking French in Morocco, Spanish in Colombia or Chinese in China, there is a different experience once you’ve equipped yourself with a local way to communicate.

To be honest, I don’t consider myself to be a gifted polyglot, and I was rather “scarred” by my first serious trip abroad over a decade ago in Paris, France, as I struggled to speak up or even understand what was going around me. Fortunately, I managed to pick myself up and, eventually, I learned how learn and my language learning progress has been unremitting. So much so that I managed my latest trip to Colombia all in Spanish, a language I’ve historically struggled with.

Language adds a different layer to how you experience you a new place. It also colors my conversations and writing. It could be a knock at your door, a funny visit to the bathroom or how expectations towards objects change. Places are different when it touches your tongue and eardrums. One my weirdest “uncanny” moments came from a goofy French song that crossed my path in a strange way in China. All of these come to paint a special picture of a life abroad. A story I continue to paint and be painted by.

Unfortunately, depending on the duration of the trip, it’s not always possible to learn much of the language. In my case, I do my best to pick up what I can before I go and while I’m there.

I think that even if you can’t become “fluent” in a few weeks or months in a new country, attempting to learn and use the phrases you know helps show some form of cultural respect. (I call it “cultural respect” but the word “respect” might be a bit strong in this context. Maybe it’s more like middle-class privilege.)

Language learning is also a type of “life hack” where there are ways to get there faster if you follow certain best practices. Throw out your high school textbooks and bad memories, it’s time to consider the best techniques and methodologies as well as your personal learning style and goals. On paper, it may take several hundred hours of study and exposure to master completely a language, but there is also a lot of evidence, which indicates the importance of the 80/20 rule. Basically, 80% of the language (which generally is translated as 3000 words) can acquired much, much faster, using the best resources, sites, apps, and strategies.

Yes, I understand a little Vietnamese

Anyways, one of the first steps in learning a new language is acquiring various learning materials. For Vietnamese,I’ve found a couple textbooks and a few listening materials and tried a couple apps and sites as well as, of course, setting up of my memorization and flashcard apps. I’ll provide an update on these resources once I’ve self-tested them a bit more. That way I can really recommend what works best.

Since it’s a tonal language, Vietnamese presents a unique challenge for language learners. You can’t just say the words; you need to “sing” them with a certain kind of musicality as certain words rise, fall or remain flat. (At least that’s how I understand it so far.)

Chinese is a tonal language too, so I’m familiar with the challenges involved. In fact, once you get the sounds of Chinese, spoken Chinese is not particularly hard. While standard Mandarin has four tones, standard Vietnamese has six. These tones create additional features you need to not only speak but also learn to recognize by ear. On the other side of it, like Chinese, there isn’t much of the “grammar” you find in Latin or Greek (i.e. no conjugations, no morphology, noun changes for sex, plural, etc.).

After trying a few different resources, I settled on Pimsleur as my primary initial listening tool. And, so, for the past couple days, in Chengdu, China, I have been taking one of the dogs for a walk and bringing my Pimsleur Vietnamese “listening” material along with me. I’m a huge fan of Pimsleur during the initial language exposure and learning phase. So, as we are strolling past various Chinese families and couples out and about, I’m doing my best to repeat and respond in my “best” Vietnamese.

One of the learning methodological principles behind Pimsleur is to get you to participate. So, during the listening, you are encouraged to speak aloud to the various calls-to-repond during the dialogues and situations. It’s a pretty enjoyable, initial exposure to a tough foreign language like Vietnamese.

Unlike most textbooks, Pimsleur presents an all-listening experience where your goal is to repeat or speak as best you can from what you’ve been listening to. It’s call and response. It’s space repetition learning in an all-oral learning model. Eventually (and this is the goal) you “fall” into your interlocutor role and you are conversing in a foreign tongue.

Even if it’s almost cliche after you’ve used Pimsleur a few times on a few languages, there is something really positive about the final lines of your first Pimsleur lesson. With the accent of locals speaking Sichuan Chinese mingling through my headset, I forced my way through the last lines of the dialogue and said as best I could:

Vâng, tôi hiểu một chút tiếng Việt.

Yes, I do understand a little bit of Vietnamese.