In just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.
Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ.
However, this wasn’t going to be a lament, this post was to be about my next step in learning and about a tiny but neat discovery.
I’ve decided that just knowing what words mean is not good enough. I need to approach these flashcards differently: from their flip side. It’s all good and well knowing what ngày may means, but if I want to say ‘tomorrow’ and I only vaguely remember it’s a two-syllable word with two a’s in it, that won’t get me far, as there are literally thousands of those. So from now on, I intend to meticulously memorise every letter and every accent of the vocabs I study. I’m sure I’ll be failing most of the time, but I hope that this ambitious effort will make the more modest aim of merely recognising the words seem easy. Wish me luck.
So far I’ve been reading Vietnamese words from the page and from the screen, writing them by keyboard (not a mean feat!), hearing them as audiofiles and repeating them in my own voice as best I could. What I haven’t done much yet is write them by hand. I will correct that now, as I expect it to be a useful additional technique of imprinting the unfamiliar words on my reluctant brain. But Vietnamese writing presents fresh challenges, especially to someone with my abominable penmanship. Will I be at all able to write vowels with two superimposed accents, such as ẫ? What is an ẻ or ỉ even supposed to look like in handwriting? And as for ơ and ư – how exactly are they to be different from handwritten o and u?
Thank Google, the internet is rarely at a loss for words, even hand-written Vietnamese words – see examples below. It turns out that the hook-shaped accent on vowels such as ẻ and ỉ is written like a little dotless question mark on top. (Yes, I know that’s what it looks like in print. But print and handwriting are often quite different. Just think of our a’s and our g’s. And to prove my point, sometimes the same accent is written as a miniature 2 rather than a question mark.) The smaller hooks that grace the ơ and the ư are to rise up much higher than I would have guessed. So they are different from the printed form.
But the real surprise was in the double accents, the superimposed diacritics. The Vietnamese have solved the issue much more elegantly than I had expected. While the accents that change the value of the vowel are placed right above the letter (â, ă, ô, ơ, ư), those that indicate the tone may move to the right, ending up above adjacent letters or even above a space. So tiền (‘money’) may actually look like tiêǹ and số may become sô´. That makes a lot of sense, because these tone signs pertain to the whole syllable.
It’s none of my business of course, but my advice to the Vietnamese would be to adopt the same practice in printing. It would make the language look a lot more orderly and aesthetically pleasing.